Hearing the words “community college” spoken in the White House by the President of the United States? And spoken again by the Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council and a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers? In my lifetime? Until yesterday, I would not even have dreamed. Or that I’d be standing beneath the chandeliers in the East Room, seeing and hearing this myself.
“These colleges are the unsung heroes of the American education system,” President Obama told the audience of 120 community college leaders, three Cabinet secretaries, one member of Congress, and eight other administration senior officials in the noon opening session.
With a red tag on a chrome neck chain that I had to return, from 11 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. yesterday, I was a temp in the White House press corps. I’ll get this out of the way now: for an obscure columnist, going to the White House is a blast. As I promised a friend, I’d write “I.F. Stone” in my notebook (see quote here), and not fall for the glamor.
Now back to my job here as a columnist. This column is a tough one. The day had good and not-so-good. The administration has taken massive action for higher education, including more than doubling funding from $16 to $34 billion for Pell Grants, the major aid for students like those at community colleges.
Attention is not funding, but I admit that the White House today sent word of what community colleges can do throughout the land. Jill Biden, professor at Northern Virginia Community College and wife of the vice president, said as she has before that community colleges are “the best-kept secret” in the United States. Introducing President Obama, Dr. Biden said, “With the President of the United States shining the light on community colleges, I think that secret is out.” I agree. Do community colleges, who know most about their problems, have an agenda President Obama and Secretary Duncan can back?
At the summit, no one I heard asked for the money back. That’s the $12 billion for community colleges that vaporized out of budget legislation this year, shortchanging the nation’s 1,200 community colleges and six million students, half the nation’s undergraduates.
Walter Bumphus, president-elect of the American Association of Community Colleges, was at the summit. I asked him how much funding he planned to ask for in his presidency, which begins in January. Premature for him to reply, he told me. What of the cloud circling the Summit, people saying that a White House meeting was a sop to community colleges, for cutting the AGI?
“I prefer to see the glass as half-full and focus on this emphasis on community colleges,” Bumphus said. “I appreciate the spotlight that the White House is putting on community colleges and the opportunity to have discussions at the highest levels.” The recurring theme of low completion rates at community colleges was a summit topic. Given the complexity of the issues community colleges face, what should the completion rate be? He replied that this was a good question. Oh, well. (Disclosure: In a June column, I applied to be AACC president.).
When the community college situation fogs up for me, I turn to students and faculty. In my 7 a.m. College Writing I class Monday at Bunker Hill Community College, I asked what I could find out for them at the Summit. A Navy veteran, who had served in Iraq, said he needed to know more about learning skills for a civilian career. His Navy skills, he said, were not marketable. Another student stopped me after class. He had spent five years in federal prison. “My skills aren’t really transferable,” he said. Where could he get some advice? I have no new answers for either of them.
The day began with a familiar tale. I stopped at Marvelous Market, a bakery and deli near the Inside Higher Ed offices. I asked the women serving me if they went to community college. “My sister, Sonia, does,” Lilian Ramos told me. “She’s going to Prince George’s Community College, studying to be a registered nurse. She has a scholarship from the federal government that’s taking a long time to process. She started school more than three months ago. She still doesn’t have the money. Now she has to pay from her own pocket until she’s reimbursed. But the courses are good.”
Lilian herself? “I am just 21. I have to give my mother’s information for financial aid. She works two jobs and we both work, so we make too much money for the federal scholarship,” she said. Lilian told me she works 60 hours a week. Forty at the bakery and another 20 as a supervisor at a cleaning company. The company where her mother worked closed. “Now, we make less money, so I think I can qualify for the federal scholarship.” A breakout session at the Summit did cover the need to continue simplifying federal financial aid and broadening eligibility. So, I have an answer for Lilian.
I was the pool reporter for “The Importance of Community Colleges to Veterans and Military Families,” one of the six breakout sessions. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, listened for most of the first half of the meeting. He then took an active role, asking again and again what the military can do to help the transition to college. His worry is that troops just focus on the end date of their service. Getting their attention on important matters that await them after leaving the service is more difficult.
Mullen said that throughout his career, he asked those leaving the military who say they will go to college, “Do you really mean that? Or are you just saying that because you know I’ll like the answer, and we can end this conversation?”
“I don’t know how much [those leaving the service] know about community colleges. That’s on us,” Mullen said. At Bunker Hill, I work with veterans every day. That the Summit attracted this attention from Mullen was my high point for the day.
In the East Room, I asked a White House press corps regular how the event ranked, one to ten, in terms of stops the White House could pull out. "A five," he said, though "you didn't hear it from me." The East Room wasn't set up for cramming in as many people as possible. "Half-day event, all day spin. The Big Man isn't going to the wrap up. That's definitely a five." We press were roped off in the back third of the East Room, and the 100 or so of us didn't fill the space.
I counted four empty seats among the guests. (Among the guests, unlike my community college classes, no piercings other than earlobes. No Jordans. No Nikes.) As a matter of proportionality, the President of the United States has the whole world and parts of outer space in his hands, and he showed up to speak, not wave. The White House is The White House is The White House. Five out of ten? Plenty generous for community colleges.
For urgency at community colleges, veterans leads all other issues. As a matter of focus and priority, having the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs devote an hour in a breakout session is 100 on a 1-10 scale. Thank you, Mr. President.
What, then, do I know after a day at the White House? I still prefer cash to spotlights and buzz. Thanks to the White House, community colleges had unprecedented attention from President Obama and in the national press. That’s great. I’ll take it with a jump for joy. What will community colleges do in this spotlight? Well, I’ll hope for unprecedented action, no excuses.
That I.F. Stone quote, to get me through the day? “You've really got to wear a chastity belt in Washington to preserve your journalistic virginity. Once the secretary of state invites you to lunch and asks your opinion, you're sunk.” I’m in the clear. The White House had bag lunches for guests and officials, not the press.
Oh, I learned that some parts of the White House have no cell phone signal, and I missed a call. My mother, 86, left a message. She sounded upset. I called back. “Where are you?” she asked. When does a son get this chance? I told her. “A lighthouse? What are you doing at a lighthouse?” Back to earth and community college.
If you plotted our town on one of those vintage maps that show important products, we’d be an ear of corn, a fat green soybean, and a little black mortarboard. Even within the perimeter of the campus, we have farms for teaching and research. On one of these, a dairy farm of 200 cows, we are living out our destiny as a land-grant institution.
Land-grant institutions, you will remember, came into being under the Morrill Act signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1862. Tracts of land were granted to loyal states; the state could sell the acreage to raise funds to establish a university. Land-grant universities were required to teach mechanical arts (engineering), agriculture, and, in a nod to the desperate reality of the Civil War, military tactics.
In the early days of our university, the student brigade rolled out its cannon and practiced artillery on the central quadrangle. When called to the Somme, they went. And now, once again, in our sleepy town, you can hear the booming sound of cannon fire.
The first night the booms woke me I figured that I had been reading too much nineteenth-century French history and had a very bad case of Napoleon on the brain. Once he settles in, he’s a bear to get rid of. But my husband grumpily assured me that I hadn’t imagined it. Someone was firing a large gun on our campus.
The neighbors had theories:
(1) Frat boys setting off fireworks. The originator of this theory grew up here, which is why he assumes that any nighttime phenomenon that can’t be otherwise explained must be caused by fraternities.
But frat boys, although they do operate inside a highly structured and hierarchical institution, don’t set off their fireworks at regular intervals.
(2) “Firing to get rid of the Canada geese,” my husband theorized. “There are too many of them around the ponds.” But weren’t the Canada geese sleeping at night?
At a dinner party that night our host admitted he was exhausted. Early in the morning he had finally called 911 and complained.
We all leaned forward. So what is it?
His eyes twinkled. “You know all those cows? And think of all the methane they produce… .” The university, the 911 operator had explained, responsibly trying to keep all that hot methane out of the biosphere, had installed a machine that processed the methane with a loud bang. Unfortunately the timer had malfunctioned and that was why it had gone off all night rather than during the day.
“University flatulence,” he chuckled. “We should have known.”
I liked all these theories. I pictured the frat boys setting off fireworks at timed intervals (they would probably have an app on their cellphones to keep track), the geese going elsewhere (good riddance!), and the methane from the dairy cows exploding with a bang. But like many appealing theories of ordinary life, all three were wrong.
The university once again has a cannon. And on that modest dairy farm, our land grant mission, our very destiny -- agriculture, military tactics, and engineering -- has finally come together to defend our land-granted soil. And just in time, too. The enemy is massed all around, lined up on the wires, waiting to attack. Wasn’t it Marx who said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce?
For the last two years flocks of crows have swooped down and pecked through the enormous rolls of corn stored in heavy plastic, causing rot and spoilage. Storing the feed corn for the coming year in giant plastic rolls is efficient and economical. Each plastic roll holds the equivalent of a sixty-foot silo and needs no maintenance. The farm tried netting over the plastic but the crows pecked through it. They tried poisoning, but neighbors complained about the crows keeling over in their yards, and the cruelty. So this year they have purchased a propane-powered nuisance cannon. At intervals it sets off a sonic boom of over one hundred decibels. Normally it goes off at random, regular intervals all day long. It went off all that sleepless night because someone forgot to turn it off.
Napoleon said that it was with artillery that you wage war and win battles. How he would have loved the university’s 21st-century weapon, the propane cannon. So portable! Blue and yellow plastic, a lightweight tripod, and 17,000 detonations from one small tank of fuel. Its only projectile is that now-familiar sonic boom. At least for now, the crows are in retreat.
Carol Spindel is an instructor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Late last month, following a protest by House G.O.P. leader John Boehner and the Catholic League president William Donohue over its imagery of ants swarming over a crucifix, the National Portrait Gallery removed a video called “A Fire in My Belly” by the late David Wojnarowicz from an exhibition. (See this report in IHE.) Over the past week, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles painted over a mural it had commissioned from an artist named Blu; the mural showed rows of coffins draped in dollar bills. MOCA explained that the work was “inappropriate” given its proximity to a VA hospital and a memorial to Japanese-American soldiers, but has invited the muralist to come back and try again.
All of this in the wake of last spring's furor over the cartoon series South Park’s satirical depiction of Muhammad (or rather, its flirtation with that depiction). I didn’t pay all that much attention to the controversy as it was occurring, since I was still getting angry e-mail messages from Hindus who objected to a scholarly book for its impiety towards their gods. It felt like I had absorbed enough indignation to last a good long time. But there’s always plenty more where that came from. People feel aggrieved even during the holiday season. Actually, just calling it “the holiday season” is bound to upset somebody.
So it may not make sense to use the word “timely” to describe Stefan Collini’s new book That’s Offensive! Criticism, Identity, Respect (published by Seagull and distributed by the University of Chicago Press). The topic seems perennial.
A professor of intellectual history and English literature at the University of Cambridge, Collini is also the author of Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain (2006) and Common Reading: Critics, Historians, Publics (2008), both from Oxford University Press. His latest volume is part of a new series, “Manifestos for the 21st Century,” published in association with the internationally renowned journal Index on Censorship. As with his other recent work, it takes as its starting point the question of how criticism functions within a society.
The word “criticism” has a double meaning. There is the ordinary-usage sense of it to mean “fault-finding,” which implies an offended response almost by definition. Less obviously tending to provoke anger and defensiveness is criticism as, in Collini’s words, “the general public activity of bringing some matter under reasoned or dispassionate scrutiny.” Someone may find it absurd or perverse that there are critics who think Milton made Satan the real hero of Paradise Lost, but I doubt this interpretation has made anyone really unhappy, at least within recent memory.
Alas, this distinction is not really so hard and fast, since even the most dispassionate criticism often involves “a broader analysis of the value or legitimacy of particular claims or practices.” And it is sometimes easier to distinguish this from fault-finding in theory than in practice. “Such analysis,” writes Collini, “will frequently be conducted in terms other than those which the proponents of a claim or the devotees of a practice are happy to accept as self-descriptions, and this divergence of descriptive languages then becomes a source of offense in itself.”
Not to accept a self-description implies that it is somehow inadequate, even self-delusional. This rarely goes over well. An artist showing coffins draped with dollar bills, rather than flags, is making a polemical point -- in ways that a scholar analyzing the psychosexual dimension of religious narratives probably isn’t. But offense will be taken either way.
Such conflicts are intense enough when the exchange is taking place within a given society. When questions about “the value or legitimacy of particular claims or practices” are posed across cultural divides, the possibilities for outrage multiply -- and the problem arises of whether critique amounts to an act of aggression.
Let me simply recommend Collini’s book, rather than try to synopsize his argument on that score. But it seems like a good antidote to both clash-of-civilizationists and identity-politicians.
“Criticism may be less valued or less freely practiced in some societies than in others,” he writes, “but it is not intrinsically or exclusively associated with one kind of society, in the way that, say, hamburgers or cricket are. And anyway, different ‘cultures’ are not tightly sealed, radically discontinuous entities: they are porous, overlapping, changing ways of life lived by people with capacities and inclinations that are remarkably similar to those we are familiar with. While there are various ways to show ‘respect’ for people some of whose beliefs differ from our own, exempting those beliefs from criticism is not one of them.”
As a corollary, this implies cultivating a willingness to listen to critiques of our own deeply embedded self-descriptions. No easy thing -- for "so natural to mankind," in the words of John Stuart Mill, "is intolerance to what it really cares about." Amen to that.
“Faculty performance data” may be the three most dangerous words on American university campuses these days – much more controversial than anything to do with political correctness, tenure or affirmative action. They hold the key, however, to bringing a true productivity boom to our colleges and thus popping the higher education tuition bubble and returning sanity to the cost of a college education.
Those with responsibility for the governance and management of a college, university or higher education system – from boards of regents to governors to legislators – who wish to position their institutions for success in the decades ahead must confront three realities, and then decide what to do about them.
First, a college education costs too much. Middle-class families can no longer afford tuition that increases faster than inflation, per capita personal income, consumer prices and even health insurance. Total student loan debt in America is $1 trillion and exceeds credit card debt. Taxpayer money stretches only so far, with health care, public safety and K-12 education claiming ever larger shares of state budgets.
Second, the higher education industry is undergoing a complete restructuring. Technology is fundamentally altering how courses are created and taught while upending the cost structure of delivery. New entrants – from for-profit white-label degree providers like 2tor to nonprofits like Khan Academy – are bringing disruptive innovation.
Third, even at elite schools there are questions about how much value is truly added. Abysmal four-year graduation rates and longitudinal studies showing many students learn little in college are just two frightening indicators. Philanthropists are even offering to pay the best and brightest college students to skip entirely and go do something “more worthwhile.”
Advocates of higher education productivity rightly understand that these three realities provide an opportunity to break the iron triangle in higher education that assumes expanded access, improved quality and affordability are mutually exclusive. Efforts to (1) reduce overhead costs through shared administrative services, (2) create clearer degree pathways and better student advising to boost four-year graduation rates, and (3) create blended classroom/online courses to improve learning at a lower cost are all important productivity initiatives to break the iron triangle. They are necessary but not sufficient, however, to unleash a true productivity boom in our universities.
I have always taken the view that it is the responsibility of leaders to define reality. That comes first, before you can do anything. The most fundamental reality of higher education economics is that universities are labor-intensive organizations. Until colleges get a handle on labor costs and labor productivity, all else will be incremental productivity improvements at best. As Willie Sutton responded when asked why he robbed banks, that’s where the money is.
The regents at both Texas A&M University and the University of Texas understand this and should be praised for their courage in asking for and publishing detailed faculty performance data. In doing so they faced tremendous resistance from entrenched interests who aren’t eager to have their workloads scrutinized and were understandably scared by increased transparency.
While serving the UT regents, I heard many arguments from frightened administrators and faculty as to why regents shouldn’t be asking for faculty performance data. Some worried that it would hurt the university’s prestige. Others complained that regents were micromanaging by seeking individual faculty-level data. Finally, there were those who worried it devalued research that wasn’t externally grant-funded, such as that in the humanities.
Like self-esteem, real prestige comes not from others pinning on blue ribbons that may not have been earned, but from true achievement. Having led organizations in the public, private and nonprofit sectors, I’ve learned that high performers are rarely scared of scrutiny, because they know they usually exceed expectations. The faculty we should most want to recruit to places like UT and A&M – great scholars and teachers at the peak of their research and engagement with student learning – are unlikely to be afraid of accountability. In fact, excellence tends to attract excellence, and a culture that clearly says we won’t allow unproductive faculty and we have mission-driven resource allocation that prioritizes excellence and weeds out mediocrity is the path to greatness and recruiting the best.
Peter Drucker once said, “The productivity of work is not the responsibility of the worker but of the manager.” In the modern research university, the current rules and incentives for how faculty are promoted, paid and, for an increasingly small minority, granted a lifetime appointment, are fundamentally to blame for low productivity. Changing these rules and incentives is at the core of any regent’s duties if he wants to reduce costs while simultaneously improving both student learning outcomes and the value of research produced. But without data to properly diagnose the problem, regents can’t put in place the right policy and management prescriptions. In asking for faculty performance data, regents aren’t micromanaging but performing their fiduciary duty.
While it is true that not all scholarship and research of value is externally funded, without the peer review process embedded in external funding, there are few internal university measures to evaluate on an objective and systematic basis the quality and outcomes of the hundreds of millions of dollars of student- and taxpayer-financed faculty time each year that is spent on this research. When 87 percent of Texans respond in public opinion research studies that the most important purpose of universities is “educating students to prepare them for fruitful careers,” while only 6 percent say it is “conducting research led by professors to create new knowledge,” if universities want students and taxpayers to continue to subsidize research, they need to create a way to measure it, quantify it and value it. In the meantime, external research grant awards will remain the primary metric for measuring the research productivity of faculty juxtaposed with their teaching responsibilities.
The faculty performance data for UT and Texas A&M do not paint a pretty picture of how the modern research university operates. In “Higher Education’s Faculty Productivity Gap: The Cost to Students, Parents & Taxpayers,” I detail the five different faculty types (Dodgers, Coasters, Sherpas, Pioneers and Stars) and the dramatic productivity disparities among them. The study shows how even small improvements in faculty productivity among only a portion of professors would yield enough savings to dramatically reduce tuition. It also raises serious questions about the quality of teaching when senior faculty do not teach the majority of undergraduate classes, depriving students of an opportunity to regularly engage with scholars at the top of their field.
As governing boards and policy makers face the realities reshaping higher education and the legacy of the unproductive research university which have inherited, they will need to decide: Do we want to follow the leadership and management model of IBM or GM?
A little over two decades ago, these American icons, which once dominated their industries and were the pride of American economic prowess, faced their own harsh realities. IBM found in Lou Gerstner, and the board who hired him and backed him up, leadership willing to seek the truth, acknowledge that the old management and labor models no longer worked, and make the hard changes necessary for IBM to once again thrive. General Motors, on the other hand, dithered for decades with half-measures and never fundamentally tackled its unproductive labor model until it was in bankruptcy, at a tremendous cost to its shareholders, workers and the American taxpayer.
Leaders willing to undertake the vital work of ensuring that universities succeed in the decades ahead, and who want to unleash a true productivity boom in higher education, need to ask for faculty performance data. They must have the courage, like regents at UT and A&M, to not flinch either at resistance to that request or from what the data shows. As the inscription on the Main Tower at UT (and on Palmer Hall, where I studied history and political science at my alma mater, Colorado College) says: “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”
Rick O’Donnell has served as executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education and executive director of the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies. Most recently, he served briefly as special adviser to the University of Texas Board of Regents.