David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   

November 26, 2018

Today is a snow day for Southwestern Michigan College, extending our 4-day Thanksgiving weekend to 5 days.  In addition, at lunch, the wife and I finished off the Thanksgiving leftovers, a fifth straight day of Thanksgiving goodies all cooked together in one gigantic blend of casserole.

For the past 5 days, I have also started and stopped numerous blogs, feeling like I didn't have enough interesting things to say about topics that I am pondering. However as I cleaned up from today's lunch, I realized my solution was staring me in my face.  I simply need to put all of these leftovers together to create a tasty treat.

I obviously need my turkey, provided to me in the form of Dana Holgerson and Mike McCarthy.  I should point out that this year I have not watched my favorite NFL team, the Packers, since about Week 3 because they are a fountain of disappointment, and have done my best to limit my viewership of my Alma mater, West Virginia University, who have wasted an opportunity to be relevant for once in the national picture.  In fact, I can proudly say I didn't watch a single minute of Green Bay's loss to Minnesota last night, or WVU's loss to Oklahoma on Friday night.

However, in reading the post-game summaries, both coaches of my beloved teams, McCarthy and Holgerson, took risks on 4th downs that didn't pan out.  For McCarthy, it was a risk he didn't take the week before, but apparently should have (again, going by the comments of someone who actually watched the game), while with Holgerson, it was a risk that he's shown again and again the last month, starting with a risk to go for a 2-point conversion to either win or lose outright at Texas (he did go for it and WVU did win), but then failed him at Oklahoma State the next weekend, when he passed on field goal attempts on 4th down, failed, and then lost when a field goal at the end could have kept the team alive.

Holgerson is known as a bit of a riverboat gambler; McCarthy less so.  Nevertheless, they both are the turkeys in my casserole of leftover blog topics, because I have spent many hours recently considering an idea of "acceptable risk."  What is acceptable risk, and when does one push it?  SMC is closed today, in part, because we don't want to put students and employees on the road in potentially bad weather (in retrospect, at least here around my home, the danger seemed minimal).  In an era when high school students earning college credit by coming to our colleges for class means large percentages of college students are barely of driving age, staying open in bad weather is not an acceptable risk.

Higher Education, like many businesses, seems driven by risk aversion decision-making, whether that risk is related to financial aid, bad press, Title IX regulations, or affordable care act provisions.  At one point this weekend, I started a poem about a mountain climber who gets to the top of the peak to ask the wise guru "What is acceptable risk?" only to have the guru respond, "Why are you asking me, you are the one who decided to scale that ascent?"  However, I didn't seem to find a way down from that point and I abandoned it.

My turkey needs some stuffing, the best of which is laced with herb.  That brings me to marijuana, which this month was made legal in the state of Michigan.  A member of the local press came to SMC's recent board meeting, and heard our head of student conduct report that marijuana would still be treated as a controlled substance and illegal on our campus.  It wasn't much of a report, just a reminder that federal financial aid would be at risk if we didn't maintain that same standard.  More than the local reporter's news agency picked up on the story, giving the story more legs than it probably deserves.

A second blog started and stopped over the last three weeks, since the vote that made marijuana legal, had been punctuated by every bad pun that the topic induces: blunt assessments of getting into the weeds at a frantic clip.  Alas, even just those three puns remind me that it was better for me to stuff this topic into this broader topic.

This specific scenario with marijuana is indicative of higher education's limitations. For an industry that isn't particularly regulated, higher education deals with a lot of regulations.  It has been something I have pondered for years, starting and stopping blogs about compliance frequently.  These are the green beans, the leftovers that wouldn't have been leftover if we had eaten them as feverishly as we ate the stuff less healthy for us.  But we need to eat them. 

For instance in March 2017, I had started a blog called "Compliance Reliance," so let's throw a few of those beans in with the turkey and stuffing and chow down. You see, everyone wants to complain about how expensive higher education is.  No one wants to complain louder than a politician.  And no one has piled on more compliance to justify complaints than the politicians.

At SMC, we call this OPP (Other People's Priorities) and it consumes a massive amount of our time and money.  There is actually a Higher Education Compliance Alliance's Compliance Matrix, which links to all 265 regulatory compliance standards (there may be more, that was the number I had in March 2017) that institutions of higher learning must adhere to.  Yes, you read that right -- 265.  I can't even get past one:

Guarding of Portable Powered Tools -- Originally proposed in 1974 and amended frequently since then, this OSHA requirement stipulates, among many other things, that a rotary mower's "instruction manual shall state that the mower shall not be used without either the catcher assembly or the guard in place."  Thanks, Captain Obvious. I wonder what it would say about the driver using marijuana.

Enough with the fricking beans! Who makes those things anyway when there is all this other good food?

Given that this is the first Monday morning in a long time that I have spent at home, and not sitting in a college Cabinet meeting, I also got to witness the local Waste Management company come deal with my trash and recycling.  And as I watched the driver get out of the cab of his truck, climb into the back bed of the truck and jump up and down to smash down the garbage/trash, I realized my bloggy concoction had its mashed potatoes.  I watched the poor guy spend 10 minutes in the freezing cold, with blowing snow all around him, trying to get the automated functions of the truck to work. I have to assume the bed was too full of trash and recyclables for the containers automatically lifted by the truck's robotic arms to empty fully.  As he continued to climb, hop, smash, and (probably) mutter under his breath, I had a moment of "there but the grace of God go I."

Meanwhile, my CNN headlines at the same time are telling me that GM is shutting down plants and slashing staff so that it can invest in driver-less automotive technology. I wish I could have that executive staring at my waste management truck along side me. I may bemoan higher education, but I don't see automation replacing too many of our jobs. 

I have no idea how much my waste management driver gets paid, but on a morning like this one, I have to say, "probably not enough."  And that could have been me, if I hadn't had the privilege of good genes, an academic home environment, middle-class wealth, middle-class dreams, knowledge of how to navigate education, and who knows what else? (Oh, yeah, I am a white male, that was a helluva starting point.) 

As SMC works later this week toward a strategic plan that can lead the institution into the future, I can't help but wonder how risk aversion, compliance concerns, and privilege are blinding my colleagues and me to the realities of our future students.  We have some outstanding academics at Southwestern Michigan College, including an amazing Honors' Program; however, the reality remains that the wealth of our student body will come from students in a 3 to 4 county radius that don't have the same genes, environments, wealth, dreams and knowledge that I and many of my colleagues have.  It is a sobering thought.

And the sobering thought leads me to the gravy that covers it all and brings it all together.  And interestingly that seems to come from the latest book I am reading, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann.  It recounts the murder of Osage Indians In Oklahoma in the 1920's, and it is a far cry from the romantic, bullshit, vision we have been given about the first Thanksgiving.  Beyond the easily known, but usually ignored, story of white-indian relationships, the book tells so much about the American experience: the romanticism of the cowboy and the west; the greed that underlies everything about Manifest Destiny; the idealism of the "American" vision; the glorification of the renegade (even in the appearance of a detective); the values of capitalism over less earth-bound values.  This is a gravy that seeps through everything.  It coagulates under the weight of risk. It oozes with the presence of privilege. It seeps into everything, even the turkey, basting in the potential of million dollar playoff pay-outs.

In the end, I look for a little cranberry sauce, the piece de resistance, the color, flavor, and coolness to elevate the final dish. And that might make me share a story about a drunken Spring Break spent in Cranberry Glades, West Virginia, one year. I think I'll pass. One has to cut calories somewhere.