Public policy

Essay on the thoughts of community college curmudgeons and how to engage them

Curmudgeons prosper in every sector of higher education. And every seasoned faculty member and administrator can identify at least one curmudgeon at their institution.

I recently conducted a study on this group, based on survey responses from 77 community college presidents. The study’s starting point was to define the campus curmudgeon in negative terms, because ultimately we were interested in their negative impact on colleagues and colleges. When I started reporting on the results of the study and began listening to the feedback from self-identified curmudgeons, though, I learned some valuable lessons about curmudgeons and their potential in helping our colleges improve.

In the original survey, the following definition was created with assistance from 14 national community college leaders:

Every community college has a curmudgeon; most colleges have more than one. They are highly visible on campus and can be identified easily by faculty, staff and administrators. Curmudgeons are contrarians who take enormous pleasure and pride in thinking otherwise. They can be cantankerous naysayers acting as self-appointed gadflies to the president or other leaders, including leaders of their own constituencies. Collaboration and civility do not seem to be values they hold in high esteem. They are quite vocal and opinionated and appear to prefer heated debate and prolonged circular discussion to solving problems and reaching consensus. Curmudgeons can be memorable characters with a certain flair or style, often using humor and sarcasm to play to their audiences.

Using this definition, the study found that:

  • Ninety-seven percent of the respondents indicated they had known a curmudgeon who fits the definition in the study. Fifty-eight percent indicated that the curmudgeons they had known were male, while 2.5 percent said they knew female curmudgeons. However, 38 percent of respondents indicated men and women were equally represented.
  • Full-time faculty members were identified by 82 percent of the respondents as the primary group representing curmudgeons.
  • Twenty-seven percent of the respondents who selected faculty indicated humanities/arts as the most representative disciplines of curmudgeons, and 27 percent selected social science. These two areas represent 54 percent of all curmudgeons in the study.
  • Eighty-six percent of the respondents indicated that the impact of curmudgeons on the college was either negative (49.3 percent) or highly negative (36.3 percent).

In addition to surveying the characteristics of curmudgeons, the study also asked presidents to describe the behaviors, motivations, damage caused and strategies used to mitigate the damage created by curmudgeons. Details on this part of the study are reported in a monograph, Community College Curmudgeons: Barriers to Change, which is available here.

The views of curmudgeons on leaders and their behaviors take on increased meaning when they speak for themselves, as they do in the italicized quotes below.

Curmudgeons Have a Point

Some curmudgeons distrust leaders who are constantly introducing the next big thing. It is not uncommon for some leaders -- especially presidents -- to always be chasing the flavor of the month or the innovation du jour. Whether this behavior is motivated by self-aggrandizement or by the desire to improve the college to better serve students, the behavior is viewed by some curmudgeons as negative, time-consuming and costly.

What if “curmudgeon” is simply another word for “not ready to get breathlessly enthusiastic for the current flavor of the month”!

I am proud to be one of those curmudgeons mentioned in this article. During the past 10-plus years, I have lived through layer upon layer of the Next Big Thing foisted upon faculty by an administration consisting of layer upon layer of folk who have never set foot in any classroom in a faculty role….

When my institution is among the first to adopt whatever latest snake oil is being peddled by Gates, Lumina, et al., over the objections of experienced faculty and in the face of any and all plain common sense that should tell us to run the other way, it is my duty to my students and to the taxpayers who fund this school to be that curmudgeon. If that hurts the feelings of Mr. O’Banion et al., too damned bad -- somebody has to say it when the emperor has no clothes, and I’m happy to be the one to do so.

The comments also reveal frustration with or disdain for administrators who have not been in the classroom or who do not understand the challenges classroom faculty face. Leaders who do not understand the very difficult challenges of teaching in a community college and who launch new initiatives without taking those challenges into consideration contribute to initiative fatigue and failure.

I take real pride in my role as a curmudgeon and sometimes introduce myself as our campus curmudgeon. I believe in the importance of separation of powers and checks and balances. When administrators know they’re going to be asked to explain themselves and the reasons behind their initiatives, they are at least a little more prone to stopping and seeing things through the eyes of those upon whom they’re foisting them. I realize that from an administrator’s point of view, we gadflies seem like pains in the butt, but as we know, power does tend to corrupt, and any sort of friction to slow this process down is worth hanging onto.

Some curmudgeons have been given a raw deal. Curmudgeons are not shy folk and speak out on many issues. Some do so because they have something important to contribute to the college conversation; some do so because they want to be visible to leaders who might support their aspirations to become a leader. If they take positions outside the comfort zone of the president or other leaders, or if they are not members of the internal network of leaders, they are often treated as outcasts. Their only choice to be heard or visible may be to become a curmudgeon. The following quotes from presidents in this study support these observations:

Curmudgeons should never be confused with whiners. It is easy to mistake their independence for hostility or simple negativism. Yet they can be reliable friends and forceful allies.

Our biggest curmudgeon on campus (nearly everyone can name him), has often ended up in leadership roles (such as chair of the faculty council). A few years back I had the opportunity to speak with him one-on-one about a topic, and during that conversation he shared with me that he had been at the college for nearly seven years and during that time he had reported to seven different supervisors with a different person conducting his performance evaluation each year. I believe that lack of effective leadership for these individuals is a key contributing factor to their behavior or should at least be considered.

Some curmudgeons identify problems that some leaders do not want to address. There are many challenging issues in the contemporary community college and many points of view on how these issues should be addressed. Leaders have their plates full in addressing the most pressing problems, but curmudgeons often identify problems that lurk under the surface and that influence campus culture. While leaders may sometimes dismiss these problems as gripes from a disaffected group, the issues, nevertheless, exist for those who are willing to register their concerns. For example, leaders in general accept the reality that many community college students are underprepared and very challenging. When some faculty complain about having to deal with the “toughest tasks of higher education” (as Frank Newman identified the challenge many years ago), they are met with some disdain and accusations they do not support the open-door philosophy. Instead of covering over these differences, leaders should make them more visible by listening to faculty concerns.

Here are some quotes from concerned faculty members who responded to the presentation on curmudgeons at the League for Innovation in the Community College’s recent conference in Boston:

Maybe if they’d listen to us curmudgeons once in a while, rather than trying to shut us up, community colleges wouldn’t be in the shape many of us are today: taking unconscionable amounts of students’ loan eligibility and seeing them leave when it runs out, as illiterate/innumerate as they were when they got here. No one wants us to talk about that, though.

I get so tired of administrators, who seldom step foot in a classroom, dissing faculty for resisting change. As soon as I question the notion that more technology in the classroom is the solution to every problem in higher education, their eyes glaze over and they stop listening.

Hey, I have initiative fatigue! I’m an adjunct who’s worn to a snot by administrators who keep coming up with crappy time-wasting boondoggles that add to my workload but not my paycheck.

Curmudgeons of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but bloated levels of directors, deans and deanlets whose understanding of education is limited to the marketing techniques of an M.B.A. and who lie supine and servile at the feet of the corporate interests, which are committed only to churning out indebted graduates with “employability skill sets.”

These comments come from only a few who responded to the reports, but they are spirited and are probably only the tip of the iceberg of how many faculty, including those who are curmudgeons, really feel about some of the issues facing community colleges. These comments touch only briefly on such key issues as student loans, student failure, technology as a silver bullet, adjunct faculty, overemphasis on career and technical education, colleges as bureaucracies, not listening to faculty, and tension between faculty and management. What would this list include if disgruntled and concerned faculty were honestly asked to identify the issues and challenges they would like to see addressed in the open? And what might be the outcomes of improved communication and problem solving if leaders and faculty were to engage in an open conversation about some of the challenges that are seldom addressed in a rational way?

What I Have Learned About Curmudgeons

In the sections above, I have tried to reflect points of view of a few curmudgeons regarding issues they care about. In summary, I have learned that some curmudgeons:

  1. Have legitimate and rational responses to perceived injustices and incompetent leadership.
  2. Have become cynical because of broken promises and constant changes in leadership.
  3. Have been passed over for promotions and recognition they deserved.
  4. Are very knowledgeable of college issues, policies and programs and are very articulate about sharing that knowledge.
  5. Would like to see improvement and change in the college and because of resistance from leaders and others have become more aggressive and belligerent as the only strategies open to them.

In education we do not like to give up on our students -- and maybe on our curmudgeons. If we could find a constructive way to engage curmudgeons directly, we might open up new ways to involve them, with more positive results for everyone. Not every curmudgeon, of course, wants to engage in such conversations; some really are destructive and want to do everything they can to slow and block change.

Fortunately, this group is a small minority. The great majority of faculty, joined by concerned curmudgeons who care, can have a very positive impact on a college and its students. Leaders need to learn to listen to the concerned curmudgeons and to hear what they are really saying over the static of the spirited language they sometimes use to vent their frustrations and their passions.

Terry O'Banion is president emeritus and senior league fellow at the League for Innovation in the Community College. He is a distinguished professor and chair of graduate faculty at National American University and a senior adviser for higher education programs at Walden University.

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Essay on making the most of Florida's remedial reform

Florida is one of several states where legislatures are exploring dramatic approaches to reforming developmental (remedial) education.

A high percentage of students who enroll at the 28 state colleges (formerly the community colleges) in the Florida College System have remedial needs, and only a small fraction of those students actually earn college credentials.

To try to combat this problem, the state’s Legislature in 2013 passed a new law mandating that the 28 state colleges provide developmental education that is more tailored to the needs of students. As reported earlier by Inside Higher Ed, the policy gives students much more flexibility in terms of whether they participate in developmental education and what options they choose if they do decide to participate.

Some concerns have emerged since the Florida reform was implemented in the fall of 2014. For example, The Chronicle of Higher Education described “headaches” such as a drastic decline in students enrolling in developmental education courses, challenges faculty members face and other issues regarding student decisions and choices.

It’s clear that the state’s developmental policy reform could have a long-lasting influence on student success in Florida and beyond. The Florida reform would be particularly relevant if the proposal of two years of free community college by President Obama ever becomes a reality. To learn more about it, the Center for Postsecondary Success (CPS) at Florida State University has been conducting a comprehensive evaluation of the implementation and effects of the policy.

The Florida Experiment

The law drastically changes the placement and instructional practices in developmental education. It prohibits requiring placement testing or developmental education for students who entered ninth grade in a Florida public school in the 2003-2004 school year and after, provided the student earned a standard high school diploma. The law also exempts active-duty members of the military from required placement testing and developmental coursework. It does, however, allow exempted students to choose to be tested and/or to take developmental education once advised of their options.

Students now have several new options in terms of developmental education delivery methods that are designed to move them quickly into college credit, using corequisite instruction, modules and tutoring. The new strategies include: (1) modularized instruction that is customized and targeted to address specific skills gaps; (2) compressed course structures that accelerate student progression from developmental instruction to college-level coursework; (3) contextualized developmental instruction that is related to metamajors (a collection of programs of study or academic discipline groupings that share common foundational skills); and (4) corequisite developmental instruction or tutoring that supplements credit instruction while a student is concurrently enrolled in a credit-bearing course.

The legislation does not mandate the specifics around each option and therefore allows the individual campuses in the system some flexibility in regard to the form and delivery of each option.

Challenges and Opportunities

The reform strategies underway are sweeping.

Because a key intent of the reform is to provide greater flexibility in determining who needs to take developmental education courses, it is not surprising to observe a sizable drop-off in students enrolling in them. The drop-off itself may not necessarily become a concern for some students, but we will need to closely monitor those who choose not to opt in to developmental education programs to determine their outcomes compared to those who did.

Research has indicated that developmental education may not be that helpful for borderline students, thus suggesting flexible placement may increase student success by not holding back students just shy of the cut score. However, a large number of students who would have scored far below traditional cutoff scores and instead opt in to college-level courses may present new and difficult challenges to institutions and instructors, and may also jeopardize students’ chances of succeeding in college. Such a scenario could be compounded depending on how students of different backgrounds make decisions.

While some perceive the increased student choice to be positive, others question whether developmental education students have the preparation and wisdom to make informed choices about course options. Students, though, generally appreciate the increased choice provided by the legislation but questioned whether other students would always make the appropriate decisions. Colleges and universities have ramped up advising and student support services, which could be key to student success and the reform as a whole. Advising students to make the “good” choice, and students following the advice properly, will be critical to student success in this new policy environment. Meanwhile, providing the necessary support to students along the way is important to sustain student success.

With greater flexibility in placement, the developmental education reform could alter the composition of classrooms across college campuses, possibly also shaping the structure and culture of teaching and learning on campus due to the wider range of student academic preparation in both developmental and college-level classes. The voices of faculty have indicated this is the case. A promising sign is that faculty members are designing customized instruction tailored to students based on their assessment of student preparation. This is consistent with the substantial literature on effective teaching and learning by meeting the needs of learners. Of course, this customization increases the work of faculty members, but if there is a way to support faculty adaptation to the new classroom reality, student success may be well in reach.

In anticipation of both student and faculty concerns, most campuses planned to increase the student support services they provide. A content analysis of the 28 implementation plans indicated that the colleges planned to ramp up advising as well as extensive training and professional development for front-line personnel. In addition, support services such as tutoring and success courses are widely considered in colleges’ implementation plans.

An earlier survey of college administrators also indicated a whole-campus approach in implementing the new policy. There is a fairly wide agreement that the reform reflects a spirit of innovation and offers an opportunity to solve an old problem in new ways, and colleges mobilized to respond to the new law and increased intra-institutional collaboration in developing strategies. Each campus has an implementation team that includes the key constituents on campus so that perspectives from all can be shared and considered.

Learning From the Experiences

The Florida experiment is a state response to a persistent problem. It marks a drastic departure from the traditional developmental education model that has not been working well. The “headaches” reported in The Chronicle from the early stage of implementation are not unexpected. However, the issues raised should not be ignored. In fact, we should keep close eyes on those issues and student outcomes.

The law allows institutions to be responsive to their individual student populations. But because there are variations in institutional reality based on student characteristics, infrastructure and previous experiences with developmental education, some colleges may be ahead of the game while others may be struggling to catch up, resulting in different reactions to the reform. While some colleges embrace it, others may have some reservations. The state and other interested parties should provide assistance to help struggling colleges to get up to speed.

The success of the reform depends on a multitude of players and factors. It depends on students to make the right decisions for themselves; it depends on practitioners and administrators to successfully rally the troops on the ground to implement the critical components called for by the new law; it depends on faculty members to deliver courses that meet student needs; it depends on advisers to effectively advise students and support services staff members to provide timely and needed support to the students along the way; it also depends on policy makers to create favorable policy environments for those on the ground to do the work at the best of their expertise and capacity.

Moving Forward

The bold reform strategies in developmental education in Florida could blaze a new trail, or offer states valuable lessons. It is easy to point fingers to K-12 education for the lack of preparation of college students. While it is important to continue to improve the quality of K-12 education for all students, it is also important to consider the ways the higher education system can improve student success. Given the nature of the reform and the multiplicity of issues, strong and sustainable leadership at both the state and campus level is required in order for the reform to stand a chance of delivering results. At least six steps appear to be warranted to determine whether such a broad reform is capable of achieving its intended outcome.

First, as for any policy change, it will take time to see results. Is there willingness to wait for a period of time to see the impacts of the current policy changes on student success, given the likely pressures from various sources? If not, we may never know whether such a reform is able to deliver.

Second, to assess the impact of the reform on students and continuously improve the policy, there is a need for credible evidence. The research community needs to contribute to the conversation by conducting valid research to understand the perspectives from all concerned and affected, and assess the impact of the new policy on outcomes related to student success.

Third, practitioners and administrators need to be open-minded and provide feedback on what works and what may be needed on the ground. On the one hand, they need to challenge conventional practices that have been in place for a long time. Fortunately, the early signs indicate they indeed embrace the idea of innovation. On the other hand, they should demand the support they need to ensure the new initiatives will be successfully put in place.

Fourth, policy makers should use the evidence and results to guide the policy-making and -remaking process. Just as practitioners within community colleges need to be open-minded in implementing reform, policy makers need to be open-minded and honestly consider feedback to adjust the policy accordingly.

Fifth, funding agencies should be keenly attentive to what is really going on in educational reform and put their resources behind research on real-world problems. Instead of waiting for perfect research, they should strike a good balance in pursuing the rigor and relevance of the research to promptly respond to the needs on the ground. Otherwise, they may end up being empty-handed in the pursuit of connecting research, policy and practice.  

Finally, credible and timely research has the potential to generate valuable evidence to inform policy and practice, and it can be accomplished by collaboration among researchers, practitioners, state agencies and funding organizations. After all, it is our shared responsibility to optimize the educational environment so that our students can succeed, reach their full potential and realize their dreams.

Shouping Hu is the Louis W. and Elizabeth N. Bender Endowed Professor and the founding director of the Center for Postsecondary Success (CPS) at Florida State University.

2015 National Policy Summit

Date: 
Sat, 01/24/2015 to Sun, 01/25/2015

Location

Hilton Downtown Disney, 1751 Hotel Plaza Boulevard
32830 Lake Buena Vista , Florida
United States
Florida US

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