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.

The Problem with Departmental Revenue/Cost (non)Analysis

Originally published June 2017.
All across the country struggling colleges (and universities) are hiring one of several academic consulting firms to help them get a handle on their finances. The ACTUAL problem the institutions face is low enrollment but this is experienced as “this place costs too much to run” (because tuition revenue is below expenses) and like management everywhere their brains turn to cutting labor costs. In the absence of a vision for what the academic program should look like (or in the presence of an unwillingness to put such a vision on the table), they turn to consultants to help them identify where to cut academic programs. One element informing decisions about academic restructuring in general and instructional personnel in particular is the so-called program cost structure analysis.

The basic logic of this analysis is to identify all the faculty FTE that staffs courses in a given area, identify the compensation of these individuals and then add in the cost of the program’s share of administrative support and operating budget and then compare this with the “revenue” the unit generates through crediting a fraction of effective per student tuition for each credit hour earned by students in the program’s courses. Then we either subtract one from the other or form a ratio and characterize the program as “in the black” or “in the red” a “net revenue generator” or a “net cost center,” etc.

Distortion and Bias on the Cost Side

When such analyses use actual faculty salaries rather than average faculty salaries they bias the result by faculty seniority.  Since faculty are sometimes on leave and since senior faculty retire and get replaced by new assistant professors this introduces big year to year distortions that make comparisons problematic.

Suppose biology, for example, has had three senior retirements in recent years all of whom have been replaced by new junior faculty. If we look at the department 4 years back it looks very expensive, if we look at it today it looks very inexpensive.

Now, some will answer this observation saying you have to budget for the actuality of today. Point taken. But the stated purpose of this analysis is to understand the relationship between cost and demand.  We are trying to understand something about the liberal arts college of today. If we do the analysis and find that philosophy is more expensive per student than marketing but the reason is marketing is a brand new department that only just hired faculty last year and we make strategic long term decisions on the basis of this information we are going to be making mistakes.

The solution is simple: use weighted average cost that takes into account the actual distribution of the college faculty across pay levels.  This permits program to program comparisons unbiased on the cost-side of the equation.

Distortion and Bias on the Revenue Side

One piece of the demand and revenue side of the analysis is simply looking at student course registrations – how many students do we teach.

This is a fair measure and it’s not hard to zero in on how many students each faculty member has to teach each year to “pay their salary.” When I did this computation a few years ago it came in at around 95 per year.

But using aggregate course registrations as a measure of student interest is problematic.  Many courses in the curriculum have numerous prerequisites and many courses are mandated as part of various minors and majors and general education schemes. And some courses are scheduled in a manner that reduces the number of potential enrollees (not necessarily out of poor scheduling strategy: languages may need to meet 4 times per week, some courses have required labs and labs may need to take up an entire afternoon).

A course that has an absolute prerequisite will almost necessarily never have more students in it than the prerequisite. Departments and programs that are more hierarchical will offer more courses that are necessarily smaller.  Courses with no prerequisites have a natural advantage. English, for example, has dozens of courses with no prerequisites or only English 1 as a prerequisite, a course that every student is required to take.  This gives the English program a huge advantage over, say, biology or biochemistry.

Programs that manage to control general education requirements and get more of their courses to count for GE will have enrollment numbers inflated over “actual student interest.”

The Upshot

The bottom line is that there are a number of structural distortions that make credit hours generated an invalid measure of student interest, especially in comparisons among close cases.

When both the numerator and denominator in a metric are subject to biases moving in different directions the metric is not a valid measurement of what you think it is a measure of. Employing such a metric for comparisons between programs, development of curricular strategy, and ending instructors’ careers is, at best, problematic.

Sometimes an analysis has a data problem (“garbage in, garbage out”) and that’s probably true here. But the far more serious problem lies in the methodology.

How to Fix

There really is no excuse for not using average faculty compensation, unless we do not care about chopping out a part of the curriculum simply because of when we hired the faculty who teach it. The other problem is much hairier.  The very nature of knowledge affects the results here, as do contemporary ideas about assessment that encourage a pedagogical trajectory from “introduction” through “practice” to “mastery.” Taking into account how different programs manifest these is not easy.  But failing to take them into account undercuts the believability of one’s results.

Is it real? Can we win? Is it worth doing?

Originally posted 16 June 2017

I saw the best minds of my institution distracted by madness, meeting endlessly in vain, poring themselves over balance sheets all day looking for the do-able fix…

I’ve watched and listened for the last several years as my institution thrashed and muttered things about reinventing itself and formulating a new business model and becoming financially sustainable.

Most disturbing has been what strikes me as an almost fanatic commitment to not running the college like a business because of a fear of “running the college like a business.”

What I mean by that is that people who are rightfully concerned about those who would turn education into a financialized commodity, an institution that serves corporate overlords, and all the rest chased away ordinary business and organizational management sense driving higher education toward amateurish and disastrous practices.

I’ve spent the last few years looking for translatable lessons that might be useful for those of us who actually understand education to build our institutions into robust, successful, and sustainable enterprises so that we can hold off the small-minded interests that would be delighted to take advantage of our incompetence.

In a 2007 Harvard Business Review article George Day describes a powerful method for assessing risk and reward tradeoffs in innovation. I think Day’s ideas can be adapted to the situation of a small college like ours and I a lot of the decisions and discussions that have occurred over the last several years, and especially in the last few months, demonstrate the pathology of an organization behaving in precisely the opposite direction from these ideas.

Day is writing about how an organization should evaluate innovation opportunities. He advocates for any potential innovation to be evaluated by asking “Is it real? Can we win? Is it worth doing?”

These questions can be adapted to an evaluation of both ongoing operations, innovations, and remedial moves taken in response to emergency conditions.

Let’s start with “is it real?”

The question refers both to products and markets. In our case the two are closely related but should be assessed separately.

When we say “product” we mainly mean the programs we offer – majors, degrees, courses, credentials. When we say “market” we mean both the market of people who want to buy our product – enroll – and a post-graduation market for people with the credentials we offer.

Is the product real? In industry this means “does the technology to build this thing actually exist?” In higher education we have to ask whether there are courses, or whether courses could be designed, that would add up to some credential or program we ponder.  We have to ask is this the kind of thing that one can do in four years or two years or alongside the rest of one’s education? Is it coherent? Legible?

Is the market real? Is there actually a desire/need for what we are thinking of doing?  Can the student for whom it is perfect actually purchase it?  Is the size of the market big enough for us to be able to get this off the ground?  WILL the potential “customer” buy it (at the price at which we will need to ask)?

Can we win?

Again, the question has two sides: the “product” and the “company.”

Can the product win? Is this thing we want to offer better than the alternatives? How established are the alternatives?  If the people who would want our thing are currently using something else, why would they switch? Can we survive expected responses from the competition?

Can the organization win?  Do we have superior faculty and staff who can work on this? Do we have the necessary experience and skills to do this well at the necessary scale and over the necessary time frame?  Are there effective internal champions to create and sustain interest and enthusiasm?  Do we really understand the market and have the capacity to listen to its signals?

Is it worth doing?

Is this move likely to be profitable? “Profitable” is a simple idea – do returns exceed expenses – but we need to think carefully about what goes into this. When are we going to have to invest how much capital?  What marketing expenditures are necessary to give the idea a chance? What future development and revision will starting this commit us to?  What are we doing now that we will do less of as we divert personnel and resources to this new endeavor?

Does this project make strategic sense? Does this new program or change fit with our organizational growth strategy? Or is it taking us off in a direction that will distract us from what we are trying to do?

An extremely important part of thinking about whether something makes strategic sense is whether the project will generate a platform on which other things can be built. Does the initiative allow us to develop policies and practices that can be used for other things? Are we building up skills and experiences among our faculty and staff that we can use to build and enhance other programs?

The “is-it-real-can-we-win-is-it-worth-doing” filter is not a magic bullet, but it is an example of some adaptable wisdom that could make a gigantic difference in the ways faculty and administrators think about change and renewal.

(Not 95) Theses on General Education Reform, etc.

General Education reform has a long history in higher education of being a no-win zone. Correct that: in any given GenEd campaign there is often a player or group of players who manage to get something out of it (e.g., an administrator or administrator want-to-be who gets credit for shepherding the program through to approval (and to be fair, it’s probably good training) or a department that gets a influx of resources it will never lose (even when GE is next revised) or sometimes a group of faculty who have opted out of discipline-based work and now rise to institutional importance).
The kudos and benefits, though, are almost never dependent on whether the program actually works and there is never any accountability for problems associated with the diversion of time, energy, and resources required by the program.
I share the Camelot-esque urge to champion the life of the mind, to fight against the forces of mediocrity in the modern world, really educate our students for the 21st century, and just generally to work for a better tomorrow, but I’ve seen this windmill tilted at too many times not to offer some ideas, collected over the years, about GenEd revisions. Offered partly in the spirit of provocation and healthy debate, but mostly on the (naive) optimistic belief that it IS possible to do better at higher education reform than is usually the case. The problem is that the ruts in the road are deep ones indeed.
    1. Almost no one will ever select a college on the basis of a general education program unless the program is that there are no GE requirements.
    2. The process usually begins with someone saying “everyone knows the current system is broken and needs to be updated.” Ever was it so. Ever will it be.
    3. After the program is in place, students and faculty will invest a lot of time and energy “getting around the rules” to make individual educations make sense.
    4. GenEd gets revamped every decade or so. Neither the stuff of GenEd nor the nature of students really changes THAT much. Thus the “new” is mostly recapitulations and recombinations of old. 
    5. Where is cost-benefit analysis when you need it? How much goes into the process? How much does it cost to implement? What’s the outcome? Listen and you’ll hear that the value can’t be measured.
    1. GenEd is an introduction to the breadth of inquiry in the university?
    2. GenEd is a set of skills and areas of knowledge that every graduate should possess?
    3. GenEd should inculcate a set of values that specialized training in majors omit?
    4. GenEd is basic skills that are necessary to succeed in specialized training in majors?
    5. GenEd should inculcate ideas students need as citizen but not taught in the major?
    6. GenEd should insure that students do not graduate as narrow vocational specialists?
    7. GenEd should be material common to all/most majors to make education more efficient?
    1. The design of a GenEd program is an organizational process, not an intellectual one.
    2. GenEd rules shape/channel resources (enrollment, FTE, budget); much of the conversation is actually about that.
    3. No GE program worth doing will please all. A compromise no one opposes is likely crap. 
    4. Who is GenEd for? What is GenEd for? Who benefits? Who pays? Write the answers out.
    5. The problem with the current program is usually implementation, not concept.  “GE is a mess” is unhelpful starting point; it’s a mess because of implementation, and the same people will implement the new one so it likely will have the same implementation failures.
    6. Least Common Denominator is very weak conceptual foundation for GenEd. Be skeptical about “what EVERY student should have.”
    1. Many proposals for GenEd translate as (1) students should have my (our!) values (2) every student should study what I teach.
      • General rule: if it’s my pet peeve or my pet project, it’s not general education.
      • Leaders should discourage “my ‘baby’ is the be all and end all” talk. 
      • Perhaps a simple rule that you cannot advocate for your own area as part of GE.
      • Keep track of which disciplines’ are most certain their subject is essential.
    2. Alternatively, use bottom up approach. Ask each “major” to write down: “A student of X needs some W and Y as foundations for, extensions of, and complements to X.” Encourage inventive thinking. Then build on that database.
    1. Look to history: GenEd as contrasted with major course of study. 
    2. Liberal arts is not same as humanities and fine arts.
    3. How come it’s not a crisis that art students can’t do math?
    4. “The Core” and related terms mean different things in different institutional contexts. 
    5. The “outside the course” rhetoric in higher ed discourse is sort of “anti-professor.” 
    6. When did “community engagement” become a fundamental responsibility of educational institutions? Why did this happen? Ask questions; don’t take things for granted.
    1. Let’s be at a little skeptical about imposing morality/ideology via “requiring everyone to take a course on X.” Very hard to find examples in history of this working well.
    2. Best test of a GE concept might be thought experiment: would it work if not required? 
    3. All of the “values,” “mindsets,” “orientations,” etc. that one is inclined to require courses on because they are institutionally important should be a part of everything we teach. If not, then they are NOT actually institutionally important, you are just wishing they were.
    1. Nobody knows what critical thinking is. Perhaps start by figuring out what we mean by it.
    2. Ask anyone who says “it’s a problem that…” to explain how they know that it is a problem and how we could detect when it was not a problem anymore.
    3. Purge all documents of “red herrings” (things that might very well be true and good but which distract from matter at hand). For example “faculty need support for digital technologies and data management in the classroom” or “need to acknowledge how hard faculty already work blah blah blah.”
    4. Perhaps outlaw any sentence that included the phrase “we used to…”
    5. “Competencies” is a buzz word. Interrogate buzzwords; don’t parrot buzzwords.
    1. Arguments for foreign languages often amount to (1) other schools do it; or (2) it’s good for you (plus, usually, unsaid, “it was good for me”). Maybe, but, as champions of critical thinking, we should do better at motivating what would be a really big student and institutional investment and diversion of resources. 
    2. Studying a language or going on a study abroad may not provide “global literacy” – it often turns one into a fan of one country, region, language, etc. It may transcend localism, but it’s not necessarily “global” per se.
    3. Do students currently chose to take foreign languages? Have the foreign language departments managed to enroll to capacity? Find out why before trying to accomplish this with a requirement. 
    4. Ask why would we require, say, four semesters of this one of area of learning but not others?
    1. What is the actual evidence that things like “community engagement” are really something that we are not doing enough of? How do you know?
    2. The future of higher ed for small second tier institutions will be strongly based on transfer students. Almost all GenEd will of necessity be something we accept as already done as a part of the transfer articulation agreements. This is likely simply part of the physics of the future of higher education in the US for many schools.
    3. Every time someone suggests “X” is our core value, ask two things. First, does X really distinguish us from other places? Second, can we ethically have students on average incur $30k in debt for an education based on X? Is that what families sacrifice for?
    1. Is your accreditation agency dominated by people from institutions you admire?  Are its publications ones you look to for inspiration?  What good is likely to come from basing a curriculum on their concepts? The answer is one thing: it is a path to a “compromise” that would not be a mere medley of all the competing ideas we faculty have. This might be important, but be clear about it.
    2. Are you impressed by the ideas of the folks who are pushing assessment nationally? Do they strike you as the right sources of new GE ideas?
    3. Are the thought leaders from American K12 education who have started to work in higher ed space the ones you would turn to for ideas on improving college and university education?
    1. Institute multiple general education requirement schemes. See which ones students opt for. See which ones seem to deliver best results.
    2. Have a fully articulated general education program but don’t make it required. Can you persuade students it is a good idea.
    3. Structure your requirements as “do at least 4 of these 7 things” and keep track of what people do and engage in some serious research about why they make those choices.
    4. Provide a strict, cohort based option (you are given a schedule of GE courses when you start and the group takes them together over a few years) and see how many students sign up for it and what effects it has.