Platforms for Pedagogy I

First Installment in a Month-Long Project “Information Systems for Pedagogical Productivity”

Are you like me? A college or university instructor whose computer storage is littered with multiple copies of syllabi and lectures and slide decks? “SOC101-Lecture5-2021F.pptx,” “Lecture 7 Slides,” “Lecture 7 Slides – OUTTAKES,” “API Diagram (1),” “API Diagram (2),” etc. Is part of your brain used for remembering which files for your courses are the currently authoritative ones? A teacher proud of how you manage to integrate your references on Zotero, your slides in PowerPoint, your lectures in Google Docs, you screen captures from Snagit carefully cataloged on MyMedia, YouTube playlists for each class you teach?

There’s often real brilliance in the systems we come up with. And many of us are continually improving our workflows as we live and learn and find out about new products and gadgets. And then we have directories with names like PPOL Intro Materials (NEW). And the thing is, everyone has their own system; I don’t think I’ve ever heard an instructor say that their “system” was the same as or derived from that of some other instructor. A million instructors have a million different systems.

As brilliant as our solutions are, in all likelihood, some of us have solved some of the problems, and some have solved other of the problems; most of us still have lots of problems.

Our Pedagogical Palette

A teacher is simultaneously an author, a performer, and an experience designer. What repertoire of materials do teachers draw on in that work? At the core are two things: domain expertise and a sense – innate or learned – of pedagogical technique. But in addition to these there are a lot of things: syllabi, slide decks, videos and transcripts, images and diagrams, references and bibliographies, annotations and summaries, outlines, assignments, whole quizzes and exams and banks of questions, practice problems and solutions, lecture notes, feedback boilerplate, handouts, descriptions of learning outcomes, workbooks, simulations, stories, illustrations, and examples.

How do we keep track of all this stuff? Most of us store things in hierarchical directories. If we’re good, we name things wisely making them easier to identify without having to open them and all our stuff is on one machine or perhaps in the cloud and synced to all our devices. But even if we pull that off, there is ample opportunity for consternation. Is the top level organization in a course the weeks or modules of the course or do we organize by genre (slide decks in one directory, videos in another? Is it redundant for the names of all objects include a course identifier if they are stored in a directory that names that course? Should directories contain only materials that are actively in use to remain uncluttered or should they be full archives of what I have produced for this unit? How to account for the fact that some things are files on my computer, some things (e.g., videos) are on my account on platforms like YouTube, other things are just links to things on other people’s accounts or bookmarks of websites? How do I keep track of documents I have PDFs of and and bibliographical listings for? DO I have a PDF of that?

The question here is not merely one of archival integrity, but also of creativity and performance. By performance I mean me teaching a course right now. By creativity I mean me conceiving, designing, and building a course. The painter who has an enviable array of tubes of paint in their storage room does not have an enviable array of colours with which to paint. The colours they have to paint with are the ones squeezed out and mixed on their palette. The question is not one of archiving, but rather of making the archive as fully available to the creator as possible. And I need to use as little of my brain as possible for the keeping to hand and mind of the contents of my pedagogical palette.

Seeing What You are Doing

In a video lecture from long ago (2012) Bret Victor enunciated a principle: creators need an immediate connection to what they create. He goes on to show some tools he developed that allow coders and visual designers to have an immediate connection to what they create. I’ve interpreted Victor’s principle as arguing that the creator should not use their brain to simulate the medium in which they are creating. A painter would not think up a set of brush stroke instructions, fully imagine what their effect would be, and then implement these on canvas. A programmer should not have to simulate the computer and compiler they are using as they write code. And designers should not simulate the world and the users for the things they design; instead, they build prototypes and let the world have its say.

This is the world I imagine for the teacher. We should have synoptic access to our repertoires, our pedagogical palette, and have an immediate connection to the things we are creating.


Entrance vs Exit Exams

My students often care about the grade they earn in my course because they believe it will influence subsequent opportunities. And so they care about the final exam because it has a big influence on that grade for the course. And so they want to know which of the things we are learning in the course will be on that final exam. And, all too often, that’s a pretty big part of our relationship.

Sometimes I feel like I’m a coach of a team – perhaps a swimming team or a track team. Now and again we have time trials as a part of our training. But of course the time trials are a means to an end not an end in themselves. The trophies and the medals are not earned in the time trials we do at practice. It’s the races in the meets that matter.

Exams feel to me more like time trials than meets.

What if, instead of final exams for courses we had preliminary exams for courses? What if we thought about curriculum in terms of what each course wanted to build on and what it wanted to leave you with. And what if you didn’t get into the next course based on a previous grade but rather on what you still had in your knowledge and skill set when you wanted to do that next course?

Maybe we could see “next” courses as building on multiple prior courses – effectively taking the idea of pre-requisites seriously and forcing ourselves to say why something is a pre-req – what knowledge am I planning to build upon in this course. Maybe each course could come with a list of “what you should already know and be able to do” goals that we could match up with the “outcomes” of other courses.

In this scenario my students are not asking me whether something will be on the exam at the end of our class; instead they are concerned about using this class to get in shape to be ready for the entrance exam for the next courses they want to take. That would likely up their game and mine too.

And the records can start to reflect how well my course contributed to their success at getting into the next course (or, eventually, passing some sort of final milestone for a degree or credential).

Curriculum Design Lab

By the time curriculum ideas become reality they’ve been so picked over by committees and assistant associate deans that their pedagogical coherence is reduced to something like “at this point nobody objects strongly to what’s left.” A few years back I had in mind to teach a course or workshop that would encourage individuals or small groups to engage in a sprint or hackathon approach to the first draft of a curriculum plan. Here’s an effort I put together, partly as an example of that genre, but also as a vision for a program I thought Mills College, where I taught at the time, could absolutely hit home runs with given their staffing, location, reputation, etc. It was basically a port to the small liberal arts college context of the program I helped get off the ground at USC in 2014, the Iovine Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation.

Technology, Business, and Design

“Innovation” is the development of creative and sustainable solutions to important problems. The TBD program offers students rigorous training as innovators in the context of a liberal arts education. It hybridizes ^!\\$’ strengths in the arts, business, and technology to produce a new kind of academic program and a new genre of academic programs.

This program is not designed only for students who are currently at or likely to enroll at our college although many of them might find it of interest. Our goal is to attract to our college students who would never have given us a second look. We expect some of these would gain admission to our program and enroll, but others would enroll at the college for other programs. Further, we expect that some students will “transfer” into other majors after the first two years. The program we want to build will put us on the recruitment map in new ways by being a radically forward looking program that is not available anywhere else. It will be a program that builds on legacy strengths of the institution, but goes quantitatively and qualitatively beyond just breathing new life into old programs.

The purpose of this degree is not to get art students to learn more technology or for technology students to minor in business or for business students to learn to talk to coders and designers. We are not after interesting double majors or curious interdisciplinary majors. All that can already be done. We are going to invent something that can’t be done now, but needs to be: a new kind of degree that is unabashedly practical and profound, that yields graduates who can be described as creative critical thinkers, visionary pragmatists, technologists with a social conscience, radicals whose skillsets make them truly dangerous to the status quo.

Unlike similar programs at larger institutions in schools of engineering or design, we envision a program in which we are teaching “innovation as a liberal art” – believing that the core learning goals of the liberal arts are highly resonant with the content of “innovation education.”

What. One way to define “Innovation” is as the development of creative and sustainable solutions to important problems. The Technology, Business, and Design, or TBD, program offers students rigorous training as innovators in the context of a liberal arts education. It hybridizes ^!\\$’ strengths in the arts, business, and technology to produce a new kind of academic program and a new genre of majors.

WHO. The TBD program is designed not for students who are already at our college. Our goal is to attract the attention of students who would never have given us a second look. We expect to recruit some of them to this program, but we expect others will enroll at the college in other programs. Further, we expect that some students will “transfer” into other majors after the first two years. The program we want to build will put us on the recruitment map in new ways by being a radically forward looking program that is not available anywhere else. It will be a program that builds on legacy strengths of the institution, but goes quantitatively and qualitatively beyond just breathing new life into old programs.

Why. The purpose of the TBD degree is not to get art students to learn some technology or for science students to minor in business or for business students to learn to talk to coders and designers. We are not after interesting double majors or curious interdisciplinary majors. All that can already be done. We are going to invent something that can’t be done now, but that the world needs: a new kind of degree that is unabashedly both practical and profound, that yields graduates who can be described as creative critical thinkers, visionary pragmatists, technologists with a social conscience, radicals whose skill sets make them a danger to the status quo.

How. Unlike similar programs at larger institutions in schools of engineering or design, we envision a program in which we are teaching “innovation as a liberal art” – believing that the core learning goals of the liberal arts are highly resonant with the content of what might be called “innovation education.”

A Two Level Curriculum

TBD is a cohort-based degree program. The integrated trans-disciplinary curriculum has the graduated profile of sequential majors but with combinatoric flexibility that will yield several tracks in the major.

The curriculum has two levels. The first two years are completely highly structured and culminate in a sophomore project. Those who successfully complete this “pre-diploma” will continue on to an upper division program that allows for more in depth studies of the three component areas of the program: arts and design; business, organizations, and social science; technology and computer science with an intense capstone experience solving real world problems.

The Pre-Diploma

The curriculum begins with three intense introductory courses. The pre-diploma program is built around the “ABC phase” in which students take an introductory course in each area (A=art/design, B=business/organization, C=computing/technology) during the first two semesters.

  • Culture, Commerce, and Innovation
  • Design, Visualization, and Prototyping
  • Physical science and Coding I

Regardless of what strengths a student had coming into the program, these intense introductory courses lay a disciplinary foundation for subsequent work.

The second phase involves three bridging courses. Starting in spring of the first year, single discipline courses are followed by courses which explicitly tie two of areas together: technology and design; design and business; business and technology. These courses explicitly build on what was learned in the respective introductory courses.

  • Design and Social Innovation
  • Technology and Design
  • Organization and Technology

The third part of the pre-diploma is a seminar in which the three areas converge and a sophomore project in which students work on teams to take an idea from initial problem identification through prototype iteration and testing. The pre-diploma program is designed so that students can either continue onto the upper division curriculum or opt out and pursue other majors.

The Upper Division Curriculum

The upper division of the program starts with an internship that is bookended by entry and exit seminars. The entry seminars will consist of skills and knowledge specific to the internships, professional skills, and priming exercises to maximize the pedagogical impact of internship. The internship itself will start at mid-semester in the fall and continue to mid-semester in the spring. The exit seminar will consolidate lessons and skills learned in the internship and make connections with student’s proposed final year project.

Innovative Infrastructure: Shattering the Semester

Courses in the curriculum will be worth 1, 2, 3, or 4 credits with credit value determined by the number of weeks the course or workshop meets. All classes will meet for the same amount of time each week. This will allow us to stagger course offerings; for example, during the first semester students will have two 3 credit and one 4 credit course but the one 3 credit courses will end 3.5 weeks before the end of the semester and the other will start 3.5 weeks into the semester allowing students a little breathing room at the ends of the semester. The program also consists of digital skills workshops which last 7 weeks (2 credits) and a series of short 3.5 week workshops for 1 credit.

Course Flights

The upper division consists of three “flights,” one in each focal area. A course flight is a sequence of two or more courses in which students experience cumulative skill and knowledge building and progressively higher levels of mastery. Students choose one “long flight” consisting of the introductory course plus three advanced courses, a medium flight with two advanced courses, and short one with a single advanced course.

A student could have a business focus and do the long flight in organization/business courses. A student with a technology focus might make technology her long flight, design her medium length flight, and business her short flight.

A third year course called problems and solutions builds on skills and knowledge. This leads to a fourth year capstone and studio/garage/workshop/fieldwork project to which about half the year’s time will be devoted. Students will be expected to tackle a meaningful problem, assembling a team and seeing it through from start to finish.

Every semester there will be a series of four guest speakers – innovators in all fields drawn from the greater Bay Area – who will meet with students in the program in sessions we call “Innovators Face to Face.” Some of these will be structured as presentations and conversations and some will be structured as critique visits for which students will prepare presentations and visitors will offer commentary, critique, and advice.

DigiTool Courses

Over the course of their first four semesters, students in the program will take a series of toolbox courses we are calling “digiTools.” Many of these will be training in software applications used throughout the curriculum.

The popUp Curriculum

Also every semester will feature a series of “popUp” workshops on topics that complement the other curricular offerings and allow instructors to do more in those classes because common topics are covered outside of their classroom time. The first set of popUps will be used to orient students to the program and to introduce tools that are used throughout the program.


Revenue Sharing

As a first approximation, assume 25 students in initial cohort with net tuition of 15k of which 33% is allocated to institutional overhead. The remainder to be apportioned proportional to credit hours delivered. One sample scheme shown below draws on faculty FTE in several existing programs/departments.

Clarity and Credulity

I need reading glasses. When this need first emerged – maybe in my late 40s – it was only for extremely small scale close up activity such as marking fine gradations when doing finish carpentry or working with very tiny screws or reading extremely fine print on some labels. But now it’s pretty much for anything printed and so I always have them with me, generally perched atop my head ready to be slid down to the bridge of my nose in an instant. And each time I do that, there’s a thrill of the world (or at least that small part of the world right in front of my face) coming into focus and clarity. In the blink of an eye, consciousness and world re-engage. The visual apparatus with which I do so much of my ascertaining of what is and is not the case goes from blunted and blurry to sharp and in-focus and I go from a state of “I don’t know what to believe” to one of “seeing is believing.”

I frequently transition from a reading task to moving about the room or house or just looking up or out the window. Many times a day I’ll get up, reading glasses still in place and start across the floor of my studio toward the stairs down to the second floor and only after a few moments remember that I have my reading glasses on and that that’s why everything is blurry. I flip them up onto the top of my head and my more-or-less 20-20 distance vision kicks in and all is clear. Again, the thrill of going from thick fog to blue sky clarity, from “whoah, what?” to “it is what it is,” that is, I now am in possession of information about the world that a moment ago I lacked. We might call this lower case “aha” as a sort of mundane version of big discoveries that merit “AHA!”

Both transitions resolve quickly into a state of taken-for-granted “me-here perceiving the world-over-there as it is,” but repeated experience of the transitions themselves leaves a mark.

One can think of these transitions as having a rate – the amount of change divided by the duration of the transition. What I experience as the thing that changes is my capacity to know the ((appearance of the) part of the) world  (that’s in front of me). It’s not merely or only vision1 – it’s me using vision to, as phrased above, ascertain what is the case here – but clarity in the visual field is a prerequisite element and the one that is subject to change. There are elements here of an “aha” experience – We might think of this as what in mathematics we call a derivative:

where we define delta clarity as new clarity minus old clarity so that aha is positive when clarity increases which is more in line with our intuition and everyday usage. Like my bringing the glasses down for reading or pushing them up to walk across the room, most examples that come to mind probably have a positive value for aha – that is, we move from less clarity to more clarity so the numerator is negative.

Daily life is full of very small values of aha wherein we gradually come to understand how something works or a story unfolds slowly as we read or hear it. And occasionally there are really high values of aha, those that elicit an “AHA!” because of the size of delta clarity as when a mystery is finally, and suddenly, solved.

But what about when aha is negative, that is, when we move from situations of more clarity to less clarity?  When I am looking at a text through my reading glasses and I suddenly take them away the text multiplies and slides over itself, the individual letters vibrating and morphing. My eyes reach out to grasp them, but they move before I can reach them.

When we suspect or discover that a friend is a liar or we conclude that a media outlet is peddling fake news or we become persuaded that what we’d taken to be a credible source was actually propaganda or a therapist helps us see we were being gaslit or radicalization brings us to critical consciousness (Lukács 1967; Mannheim 1959) or we realize that the story in the novel we are reading is told by an unreliable narrator (Booth 1983) we experience various sized negative values of aha.

Two other loci of the experience of negative aha will be examined in the next section: the failure of our relational partners to notify us of things we think they should and the diminution of cognitive/sensory tools in old age. Both these highlight another aspect of this phenomenon: the meta-experience of negative aha – the realization that our relationships (Ryan 2006) or our faculties may not be what we thought they were and that things we’ve depended on for information about the world may no longer be dependable.

1 One could experiment with other things – perhaps what comes into focus is an optical illusion or a coded text so that there is another step and another faculty engaged in coming to clarity, but those are questions for another day.

Booth, Wayne C. 1983. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Revised ed. edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lukács, Georg. 1967. History & Class Consciousness. Merlin Press.

Mannheim, Karl. 1959. Ideology and Utopia;: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge. Harcourt, Brace.

Ryan, Dan. 2006. “Getting the Word Out: Notes on the Social Organization of Notification*.” Sociological Theory 24 (3): 228–54.

Humans in Cabbagetown

This from early pandemic days.

We don’t even bother trying to order groceries for delivery any more. Several times over the last seven weeks we’ve clicked “order for delivery” and then spent fifteen minutes filling a cart on a poorly designed website and put in all of our address and payment info only to press “place order” and get a message that no deliveries are available. But this morning I saw a posting on our neighborhood listserv where someone answered a query about online grocery deliveries saying, “I’ve had good luck with Loblaws, two hour delivery.” Now that’s the same store I’d been so frustrated by, so I thought I’d take a look. I clicked “order for delivery” and the perky little thing seemed delighted to serve me, so I put together a little order to test the system. Nothing more than what came immediately to mind as being in short supply. Milk, bread, eggs, breakfast cereal, cooking oil. And then I clicked “check out” and entered my payment and delivery info and clicked on “make this purchase” and the next thing you know I get a confirmation text. And a delivery window. Weird. So I go back to work, attend a few zoom meetings, respond to several texts from my “shopper” about substitutes (a bag of frozen mangos is not a substitute for frozen berries) and one that said, “surprise, the raspberries were on sale, Dan”, and edit some videos. But around six I get up to stretch my legs and I walk downstairs, wondering if maybe the groceries had arrived (I harbored doubts they really would, the order was really just a Friday afternoon lark, but I figure I should check). But as I land on the first floor I look through the two windows on our two front doors – you need a sealed off vestibule up here due to how cold it gets in the winter – and I see a very scruffy guy leaning over our front gate. Hair kinda long and wild, baggy clothes not exactly intactly worn, many days of beard. Lots of sad fellows in the neighborhood, guys who’d be homeless in a less supportive society. Harmless, mostly, but often challenging to interact with. I wanted to open the inner door so I could look out the outer door window to see if there was anything on the porch, but this guy was leaning over the gate and it looked like he was talking to somebody on our porch, in sort of angry tones, as he were rebuking someone, though I was pretty sure there was nobody on our little porch. I was afraid that if I opened the inside door I’d embarrass the guy, catching him mid-hallucination, or I’d embarrass myself turning him down when he asked me for booze money. So I stood back out of sight. I didn’t want him to get the sense I was shooing him away or that I was annoyed he was invading my property. I walked through to the living room where I could see him from a more oblique angle through the other window and still he was gesticulating toward the porch. And then, suddenly, he seemed to have had his say and he started waking away. And so I returned to the hall and opened the inner door and made my way to the outer door so I could look down at the porch. And there were our groceries stacked in front of the door. And, for about a second, I realized that those groceries could, in this neighborhood, be stolen from the porch. Not very likely, but possible. And so I should have put “ring the bell” in the delivery instructions, not just “leave on porch.” On the other hand, jeeez, what if that guy was hungry and looking over at the bags of groceries debating the morality or safety of helping himself to some? And at the end of that second, as I opened the door, I saw the startled raccoon trying to get away with at least a small piece of the loaf of bread she’d managed to pull out of one of the bags. And she’s looking at me with this expression that clearly says, “shit, just when I get rid of one, another human trying to fuck with me as I celebrate this eureka moment!” as I shoo her from the porch.

A Few thoughts, cobbled together, about Mills

TL;DR. I’ve watched the place for a long time. Can we imagine someone acquiring the place and turning it into a going concern? I think yes. But first you have to recognize that the current situation did not happen, it was caused. Take the ship’s tiller out of their hands. Second, realize that the status quo is more information about mismanagement than about the environment or the core product.  Third, leadership has to abandon its reliance on factionalism. Fourth, work with the core competency of being able to teach across a blindingly wide spectrum of preparation/condition/privilege. Fifth, you can still choose what kind of history to make. Sixth, take seriously the responsibility to design and deliver the kind of education that will turn out 50 years hence to be the one that the 21st century needed.

Dear Trustees and Other Friends of the College,

I write with the perspective of some time and distance (though I’m back in Oakland these last many months and in close touch with lots of Mills friends). I’ve missed working at Mills and I’m sorry the last few years have been so challenging for those still working there. Looking back, I must say, that while I found it astonishing how easily smart people were bamboozled by a small number of people with a perverse and vague agenda a few years back, it is no surprise at all that their implementation of that agenda landed us where we are today. Even absent COVID, it was the kind of thing you could have set your clock by. And yet we continue down the path.

I resigned tenure 2017, after 20 years at Mills, partly in protest over the firing of my tenured colleagues. It seemed unethical to countenance a decision that could destroy lives and was unlikely to solve the college’s financial problems. It also seemed wrong to hold onto my chair given that I was fortunate to have an alternate employment option that others did not. It was the most difficult decision I have ever made and there’s not a day that I don’t regret it. Working at Mills was the most meaningful work I’ve ever done and I think I was pretty good at it. In retrospect, the whole affair is all the more painful because the Financial Stabilization Plan did, in fact, stabilize nothing.

Watching from afar, I have often, over the last few years, pondered the possibility of assembling a group of like-minded education/innovation/make-a-difference folks to acquire the massively under-performing asset that Mills College is. We see that happen in the commercial sector, why not in education? The challenge, of course, is that most folks who play that game do so for the promise of profit, and that’s just not a very likely scenario in higher education. There IS a massive return on investment when it is done well, but those returns, and their multipliers, are socialized and hard to capture. So, investors aren’t breaking down the doors to get in on the deal, but that does not mean that the place could not be reorganized into something that is a successful, ongoing concern. I think it could be. I think it’s real. I think it is worth doing. And I think we could win.

That window of opportunity has not completely closed, but it cannot be exploited without some serious tapping on the brakes and some hard steering.

Stop Digging

I suspect most of you have little appetite for hindsight at this point, but ignoring how we got here distorts what we take away from the status quo. We have heard it said “we’ve tried everything and that proves that nothing will work.” That’s bad logic. 

As I write this, the Mills website boasts about percentages in student demographics. But compared to a few years back, Mills, according to its own numbers, in 2021 educates fewer undergraduates overall (997 in 13-14, 609 today), fewer students of color (almost 500 in 13-14, maybe 400 today), fewer LGBTQ+ (~400 in 16-17, ~350 today), fewer Latinx (222 in 16-17, 207 today), and fewer resumers (~160 in 12-13, ~100 today) . After jumping on the faux-price-cut bandwagon tuition plus room and board minus average financial aid award has gone down maybe 1,500 in 2011 dollars. Years of hand wringing and tens of thousands of consultant dollars barely moved the needle on the bottom lines for families. Operating budgets have been squeezed, faculty ranks shrunk, but deficits remain. And, as best I can tell, the single most important outcome of good management, revenue, has only contracted.

Let that sink in – four years of massive restructuring and almost every single indicator is basically unchanged or worse. And you ask the leadership “what’s next?”?

While anemic investment in marketing and lack of strategic messaging, maybe even the negative valence of our Oakland location, and COVID have all contributed to the revenue drought, most of the downward spiral, I believe, did not happen, it was done.

This team’s response to an alarming drop in enrollment post 2015 was to reduce full time faculty, increase adjunctification, cut majors, reconfigure the curriculum in a manner that made the school look amateurish, and shift the meaning of critical thinking from tool to critique.  Each of those moves made Mills a less robust, less attractive, less serious, less competitive institution.

Who really expected that those changes could be papered over and be turned into expanded revenue? Anyone? 

And someone, I think, needs to stand up and ask why all those cuts happened at the same that time the college announces its aspiration to enroll more students from Oakland, more students of modest means, more students of color, and more LGBTQ+ students, and to get the designation of “Hispanic serving institution”: why was it OK to offer to these prospective students less of a college than the students who attended Mills before these changes?

Under its current leadership the College has been digging a hole for five or more years. It lost its grip on growing enrollment. It appears to have  lost its grip on growing fund raising. It appears to have lost its grip on maintaining a national reputation. So, stop their digging. Reckon with the realization that the takeaway from the current situation is about who’s been running the place and the decisions they’ve made; it’s not about COVID, it’s not about women’s colleges, and it’s not about the prospects for moving forward.

Eschew Factionalism – from MyMills to OurMills

The College has a long tradition of managing its stakeholder communities via a sort of Tito-in-Yugoslavia-like miracle of balancing opposing forces, side-deals and special arrangements, begging indulgence while the latest crisis was dealt with, and dressing up the goings on with lots of euphemism. But those techniques come back to bite you in the end.  

And now this factionalism is mixed with it’s nightmare cousin: individuals and categories of individuals angling to get the best deal before the curtain comes down.  You’ve seen the demands – back pay, loan forgiveness, refunds. If you are cynical, it’s the rank-and-file wanting a bit of what the top folks have had for a long time: a chance to live OFF instead of FOR Mills. Or it’s just creditors getting in line.  Or, it’s good strategy: it makes pulling up the stakes and striking camp more expensive for those who want an uncomplicated, amicable end. Or perhaps, if one is merely realistic, it’s a path by which the largest number of people might conclude the institution had a good death.

Factionalism has infected the ranks of “SaveMills” too, perhaps, giving the administration and board some comfort in not having to face a fully unified opposition.  

We see this at a personal level: a lot of people have been posting on the internet or writing or speaking to the BOT about how important Mills was to them qua some human category with which they identify.  I’m X; Save Mills because it is important to Xs.

That Mills has done, or does, well by Xs is a good thing. And if Xs think of Mills as a place that’s good or safe for Xs, that’s a good thing. But you can’t build a sustainable institution around “just X,” especially when your institution works tirelessly and effectively to reduce the need in society for a special place for Xs.

This factionalism would give anyone thinking about a turn-around pause and we should just commit to stopping it.  But to do that, you need some leadership. Not leadership that says “sorry, we’re closing up shop but don’t worry we’re going to have an institute that we don’t really know what it is yet (and we’ll ask some of you to do design thinking with us to figure out what we mean).” Nor leadership that says “you just don’t understand how bad things are and by the way we have already tried everything.” But leadership that can say “the path we took is either wrong or we were the wrong ones to lead us on that path and so we step aside and ask that you give a new team a contingent vote of confidence. They’ll seek your wise counsel but they are not designing an institution for the past, they are designing it for the future.  It will not be the Mills you remember, but it will keep doing the things you remember Mills doing. We need folks not to be conditioning their support for Our-Mills on it being their own particular MyMills.  We ask you to lend a shoulder for, say, the next five years, and if you don’t like the direction things are going in then, withdraw loudly.”

Is There (Still) a There There?

During my time the College often hired brand consultants who aske people which words they associated with Mills and which words had positive valence. Interesting enough (more interesting that we generally rejected findings that did not resonate with our priors), but there’s more to a brand than the mental associations of consumers.  If I were talking about the Mills brand to potential “investors,” they would want to know what Mills is good at.  What are its core competencies? There IS an answer to that question and it is important.  And it’s not what’s on the website.

What Mills has excelled at across the decades is providing a transformational educational experience that worked for folks who are conventionally positioned for success in higher education (and life) as well as for folks for whom higher education was, for one reason or another, not going to turn out well.  And for everyone in between. All at the same time, all in the same classrooms. That does not happen everywhere. It mattered. It mattered a lot.

The school’s motto, I find myself thinking, may have gotten it wrong. It was not “many paths and one destination.” It was, strangely, many origins, one path, many destinations. 

The people in our classrooms represented the whole of the bell curve on pretty much any education-relevant dimension you’d care to consider. We’d have students whose current life situation is beyond challenging and students who were in extremely comfortable positions. We’d have students whose lives had been charmed and students who’d been to hell and back. We’d have students who were exquisitely well-prepared for college and students who barely qualified. We’d have fresh faces just out of high school and wrinkled faces with grandchildren. I had students who would make it as long as I didn’t get in their way and I had students who wouldn’t make it without intense mentoring and hand holding. In today’s terms, students with lots of privilege, students with some privilege, and students with minimal privilege.  Intersectionality notwithstanding, where people were on these different dimensions was not rigidly tied to particular demographics.  You’d see cis white students who’d been homeless and queer students of color with trust fund and on and on. At orientation each year we knew we’d learn something from the variety of human conditions and capabilities that sat in front of us. But we would get to know each student and together we’d figure out how each would get their unique Mills education. We aspired to take each student seriously intellectually and to get them to take themselves seriously intellectually.  And no matter where people started, people grew. Class after class, year after year.

Most of the testimony we’ve been hearing this last month is related to this core practice of excellence.

Mills changed the world, not with programs, taglines, partnerships, and expansions of ancillary non-academic services or by incanting “social justice” over and over – not that there’s anything wrong with those – but by staying focused on the self-transformation of students during their time at Mills and then turning them loose in the world.

As far as I can tell, the College has never put big brains and serious time and real resources behind an effort to answer a simple question: how might we do more of this in a manner that’s sustainable and affordable? 

Instead it chased every squirrel that got applause from the choir it was preaching to, listened to consultants rather than thinking, engaged in sleight of hand name changes, disdained the full time faculty, built teams based on affinity rather than competence, told lies with data, implemented bogus pricing schemes, adjunctified the faculty, narrowed the visibility of the brand, and generally turned the college into a less serious place in American higher education.

Despite wear and tear this core still exists because a group of teachers come to work each day and do their job even as things fall apart around them.  That there there is in the DNA; it is not clientele dependent.

We Make the History We Choose to Make

I was in the room with some of you at various points over the last decade when mistakes were made. Some of these were certain sets of voices being heard and certain sets of voices ignored. The most critical were poor personnel decisions and conspiracies to ignore elephants in the room.  I’ve seen “governance by it’s already been decided before you got here” up close. I’ve seen the things that should have been whistle-blown. Lots not to be proud of. But that’s water under the bridge and the question is what now?  

All indications are that the current modus operandi is “steady as she goes”:  minimize transparency, shroud things in euphemism, manage the message, double down on planning processes that gave rise to current failures, defer to people who have demonstrably failed in their appointed tasks, hope that high-minded rhetoric will make up for vague ideas and lack of due diligence.

Maybe let’s stop all that. Maybe let’s stop telling the truth in side-conversations but not challenging absurd claims in open session. Maybe let’s stop letting euphemism pass for analysis. Maybe let’s stop writing off the input of folks who don’t toe the line.

Perhaps it’s time to see through the fog of convention, expedition, prejudice, and posturing, and to do what’s right, to recognize that the fiduciary duty is not to a pool of money or a tract of land or the projects of an incumbent president, but to a next generation of students that the 21st century needs to have gotten a Mills education. No other place is going to do it.

Reprising the Women’s Leadership Institute as a successor to Mills College should embarrass you. An insignificant niche think tank will do little or nothing for those might-have-been future students. The world is awash in non-profits where would be scholars pump out tweets, op-eds, and reports that no one reads. The world doesn’t need more opinions and studies echoing in chapels of the like-minded. We have a demonstrated failure to attract students to study a themed curriculum; why would we now want to divert resources to a bunch of professors to talk about those same themes only this time with no accountability to actually recruit an audience?

The 21st century demands of us who call ourselves educators that we actually build and deliver the education that will turn out to be the one that was right for making this century’s history. Next to that, an institute is but a sad joke, poorly told, an abdication in the face of opportunity. I guarantee there will be no plaques with the names of the founders of a Mills Institute.


One Sunday in the spring of 2017 I spoke at an admitted student event at a hotel in Pasadena. There were two or three such events there that day: ours and I think maybe Whitman and Pacific Lutheran. The Mills event attracted maybe 30 students and their families. The other receptions were, by comparison, mobbed. The relative numbers were a bit depressing, but our reception made up for it in a sort of quiet intensity.  Before the program began, I made my way around the room trying to say a few words to each student and their families. Quite a few of those families included one or two parents who did not speak English well and so sometimes the daughter would translate. Behind each polite exchange was a question: “So, Mills College, you realize we are making a big big bet on it for our daughter here. Is it a good bet?” I’d had that conversation many times over the years with parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts whose child was considering Mills and I knew what the answer was: “you don’t need to worry, mom/dad, I can guarantee you that we will make a big difference in your daughter’s life.”

And when I’d see those and other parents/uncles/aunts/grandparents/foster relatives at graduation a few years later a familiar scene would play out – new graduate bubbly saying “grandma, this is the professor I told you about and blah blah blah…” – but grandma and I didn’t hear because we were exchanging a look, a look that said “we both know what happened here, we both know who arrived at orientation a few years ago and who is standing here now and we both know what a world of difference these few years made.” I’d say thanks for letting me be a part of that and they’d say thanks for being a part of that and then we’d clink our plastic glasses full of faux champagne.

But I couldn’t volunteer for that reception in Pasadena the next year because the President and her team had already begun to dismantle the place that could deliver on the promise (sadly, right as they were seeking to be designated a Hispanic Serving Institution – that should make you as mad as it made me).  Current students can still have a great experience at Mills because the faculty will deliver that even when they are the last one left standing. But the place has been diminished and most savvy families would spend their hard earned savings and courageous borrowings somewhere else. 

How can it be that not one among us is bold enough to say what is obvious: the current failure mode – at least on the enrollment and revenue front – tells us that the place has been managed into the ground NOT that the core product is outmoded or unsellable.   It IS real. It is worth doing. And we could win. 

None of us have yet conjured up the roadmap, but why not convene the right team and motivation and try?

Why, Why, Why?

In a FB conversation I let loose with the idea that the leadership at a former institution had worked hard to reduce the kinds of things that contributed to its once great reputation. And I said “Educational malpractice in my book.” A few correspondents said, “hmmm, say more.”

TL;DR: the college’s onetime world brand was deliberately undone by decimating the faculty so the college could be steered in a new direction. It didn’t work.

In design we often do an exercise called “5 whys” where we keep asking “and why does/did that happen?” One has to channel one’s inner three year old. But working back to a cause we can grapple with often helps avoid misdiagnosis.

So instead of just accepting enrollment crash as an explanation, ask why that happened.

One of the answers, I believe, is the hollowing of the academic core, abandonment of the traditional liberal arts model without a vision of a new one, and shifting of resources to ancillary support programming which became the centerpiece of the “brand” presented to the world along with a shift to hyper-local focus.

I think these turned out to be bad bets.

A few people choose a college or university on the basis of such things, but not many. And very few will come across the country or world for it. Many families who can afford tuition won’t pay for it and neither will many of those who have to go into debt for college.

This is not rocket science. It wasn’t rocket science 5 years ago.

At the end of the day, the faculty deliver the thing that people choose a college for. Starting several years ago the institution’s leadership team seemed to choose to see the faculty as the problem and obstacle and whittled away at it. Very successfully. A lot of folks were forced into retirements they did not want. Folks with tenure were effectively fired. Others made the rational decision to take advantage of other opportunities when the admin waved bogus data at colleagues and said “your field is no longer of interest to young people.”

And the “new” institution? The supportive environment and engagement with the local community are wonderful and needed in higher ed, but if you don’t have a robust academic program behind it, it’s just icing on a fake cake. And if you radically slim down your faculty and curriculum, you don’t have a robust academic program. And people can tell.

This doesn’t mean students can’t find a way to get an excellent education from what remains. Some will. But lots of potential students will look elsewhere.

Maybe “malpractice” was a bit hyperbolic. I was referring to bending and reshaping an institution in a manner that the folks in your bubble applaud, and that some students sign up for, when in fact you have no plan or capacity to actually make it work. You’ll leave them in the lurch when you get your next job, rewarded, perhaps, for handling a crisis so well (n.b., the entire team of faculty members selected to guide the new institution c2018 has taken jobs elsewhere). Just kind of reminded me of a surgeon who totally botched an operation.

Throw in the effective destruction of some folks’ careers (and the estrangement of others from an institution they’d given their lives to) in order to get your way and it feels even a little more mal-.

Why? Why? Why? indeed.

How Do I Know It’S Not Saline?

Lots of talk about folks who do not trust safety of vaccine and so might opt not to get inoculated. Some talk in connection with that about lack of trust in institutions, etc.

But what is perhaps more interesting is how many of us will get vaccinated and assume without direct evidence that it was real rather than a placebo or saline. If we manage to have no side effects we’ll think we are lucky or robust. But we must have a pretty strong faith in institutions, etc. if we are willing to go to some website we heard about on the radio, give them information, go to a stadium or drugstore and allow strangers in white coats to inject us with who knows what. They don’t show us any certificates of authenticity or the freezers and dry ice or the security tape they cut through to take out our dose. You get an email that says “Go to this Walgreens in some other city at such and such a time” and then you get there and “Calvin will inject you,” they’ll say, and we’ll roll up our sleeve. Who even is this Fizer guy? Do I know where that cute name moderna comes from?

And it’s not just follow the crowd: people compete to be at the front of the line.

Why do we believe any of this? Some because we are desperate TO believe, but almost none of us has seen direct evidence. But NPR said so. And our employer. And people who claim to be scientists say so. And it’s on TV. And our doctor said to get the shot. And the president is talking about it. And they mention CDC and Johns Hopkins and that BandAid company.

So, while there are some noisy doubters and there are some legitimately aggrieved skeptics, for the most part this social institution think is still running. I have no doubts that it is saline.