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

September 21, 2012: Inside the HEAD -- Week Three (day fourteen)


Benchmark?  Such a weird word for comparison.   How do we benchmark against others?  Well, I would hope our benches left no marks at all.  We have some real weisenheimers in building & grounds so I could see someone removing the "wet paint" sign right before I sat down and leaving me with my benchmark.  I also can't help but see benchmarking somewhere in the ballpark of bedpost notching.

One of my struggles with the benchmark is wrapping my head around the percentile.  I've always needed to take several minutes to think through whether a high percentile is a good thing or not.  In fact, I think my ACT scores and GRE scores immediately went down upon publication because I couldn't immediately get the percentile concept.  "I'm in the 88th percentile?  That doesn't sound very good.  Almost 9 out of every 10 students did better on this stupid math portion of the test than me?"  (For the record, I do not remember my math scores for ACT or GRE--did they both have Math components?--so feel free to question my completely hypothetical 88th percentile measure here.) 

It has seemed to me that if I wanted to be seen within a selected group, I would want to be down with the single digit numbers.  If I am in the 4th percentile, then, dang, only 4 percent is the country is like I am.  (Uh, I guess, that is the case actually. It just is no longer a GOOD thing.) 

Eventually, someone, ironically, stronger in verbal skills than I am can explain that being in the 88th percentile is a good thing and that being in the 4th percentile is a bad thing. O.k., so high is good (well, not in the Timothy Leary sense) and low is not good (well, not in the Muddy Waters sense).

Why all this trite reflection today?  Because I got benchmark data today.  And I want to scream.

In the current case of a National Community College Benchmark Project, I'm told that our "service area unemployment" rate is in the 82nd percentile.  That sounds like it should be good, right?  But it is an unemployment rate at 9.8%!"   And when the service area had 14.3% unemployment several years ago, it was in the 98th percentile nationally.  I'm pretty sure there is nothing good about that number.  So high is not good and low is good. 

Sigh!  And in my confusion, I don't even know if my confusion here means I need to take remedial math or remedial reading. 


September 20, 2012:  Inside the HEAD--Week Three (Day thirteen)

When is enough, enough?

This question is hardly limited to higher education, let alone higher education administrators, but the daily life of administration constantly reminds one of that challenging question.

A program staggers along drawing 8 - 10 students a year.  In a good year, it barely makes money. In a bad year, it loses money.  At the beginning of every year, there is a gut check moment:  when is enough, enough?  When do you pull the plug, given the fact that you have committed resources and faculty and have established some expectations of stability for new students or students who have applied but not started the program?

When is enough, enough?

A conflict within your staff bubbles to the surface every once in awhile.  Exchanges get heated, private reprimands are issued.  Employees pretend to play nice with each other, but behind the scenes, the acrimony simmers.  When is enough, enough?  When do you terminate a conscientious employee who just doesn't seem to help the overall team?

When is enough, enough?

A student tries his hardest. He wants more than anything his degree.  He still barely skates through every class.  As he enters his last year, he has a GPA of 2.00.  He is passing, but is he ready to be passed off to the world.  When is enough, enough?  Teachers have bent over backwards to help him, extra credit has been allowed, every resource the university has to help him has been used.  However, is the university really ready to send him into the world with their brand tattoed on his forehead?

When is enough, enough?

A Vice President, perhaps even me, promises the moon and the sun.  Goals are proposed, vetted, measured.  Each year the goals aren't attained.  More resources go into the goals, other areas of the institution are neglected because of the shifting resources, and the tenacity of the Vice President to meet those goals only gets stronger.  When is enough, enough?  When does someone in authority simply say, "enough is enough.  We can't afford to follow your path anymore."

I suspect we all believe private industry is much more attuned to these "we must pull the plug" moments.  However, I am not convinced that is the norm.  Higher education, similar to most private businesses, has its blind spots, its love of the vernacular over the factual, its tendency to postulate and not substantiate, to be the dope and not look for the dope.

As Gang of Four sang, "It is not enough/it is just a habit."


September 19, 2012:  Inside the HEAD--Week Three (Day twelve)

Campus hijinks today with SMC's 'Campus Bash," a combination of bean bag toss, zip lines, student organization recruitment, and the dreaded hot dog eating contest.  Is there a better diet plan than watching a hot dog eating contest--ten or so contestants shoving meat parts and buns in their mouths and drinking water straight from pitchers? Luckily we have a 5 minute time limit, which is only long enough for someone to get to about 10 hot dogs, three or four contestants to bow out before they blow chow, and for me to never eat again.

On day 9, I wrote about the C & I committee. I neglected to mention that I had a new faculty member ask to just observe the committee meetings so that he could learn about the college.  I asked him why he would ever want to "watch the hot dog being made."  So, sticking with the hot dog metaphor, I wonder, "what is the higher education administration equivalent of a hot dog eating contest?"  And what would the weiner get (did I really just write that?)

  • The old coffee drinking contest.  Who drinks the most coffee from the hours-old coffee carafes?  (To be honest, I think the world record is only three cups.)
  • The donut eating contest.  Who eats the most donuts brought in for a morning meeting--three days ago?  (Maybe a lot of higher education administrators were cops in another life.)
  • The attend meetings contest.  Who can attend the most meetings in a row?  (Unfortunately, this is most likely to be won by the person who has one hour or shorter length meetings through the day. No extra credit for sitting through a three hour meeting.)
  • The e-mail sending contest.  Who can send the most e-mails?  (I should probably just shut up.  That could be me.)
  • The cliche spouting contest.  Who can say the most meaningless cliches?  (By the way, if anyone ever holds this contest, I know an idiot who I will call.  After he promises to take the 40,000 ft view, I will lay a hundred dollars on him to win.)

Anyway, enough of this rambing.  I think my jokes can only go from bad to wurst.


September 18, 2012: Inside The HEAD -- Week Three (Day eleven)

While waiting for my wife today at the University of Notre Dame, I picked up their campus newspaper.  Lo and behold, I was surprised to find an article talking about the 77 faculty members hired for this academic year.  Yes, you read that number correctly.  Now, to be honest, I didn't read anything in the article, so there may be some special circumstances that lead to any 1 or all 77 of them to be hired, but nevertheless, I left in awe of a place that can have such financial stabilty.  (I'm sure someone from Notre Dame might want to disagree with my premise about their stability, but my point from here on will simply be to state some comparisons between a small number of big-time schools and a large number of smaller institutions).

Suffice it to say that many institutions don't even have 77 full-time faculty overall.

I have been lucky to hire a lot of faculty, even from a VP/Provost level, over a decade or so.  I have no doubt that number is nowhere close to 77.

As a general rule, numbers of full-time faculty members go down across the country as many institutions replace departed full-timers with adjuncts.  "Things here are different," Jill Sobule might sing.

In addition, my wife, who is a librarian, tells me that the Notre Dame library hasn't had to cut back on their serials for years.  (I'm tempted to say she has told me that they never have, but I can recognize hyperbole as well as the next guy.)  Still, in roaming through her library today waiting for her to finish up (this was my first time there), I was reminded of the immense size and collections of big state universities, such as Indiana University and West Virginia University.  I am damn proud of the efforts made by SMC's library staff with a small budget and limited space, but there is an impressiveness of a major university library that reminds me of the absolute joy of pure research (research as English majors do, not as scientists do, although the library is certainly important to them, too).

Finally, in killing time, I wandered through the Information Technology Center that appeared to be completely devoted to computer support, a computer store, and who knows what else.  By the way, for those not in the know, that "center" appears to be an entire building.  An entire building!  At Southwestern Michigan College, computing services staff occupy a tiny corner of one of our classroom buildings.  I'm sure my guys (and ladies) dream of that much space and resource allotment.

So, I left Notre Dame a little envious, but I also left very anonymously.  And that's something I wouldn't trade for the bigger schools.  There I was, a guy in a tie, walking around campus, no one knowing who I was or even caring who I was.  At SMC, we do know each other and within a couple of weeks even most students will vaguely know who I am.  That is a pretty good trade-off, all things considered, not only for me but for the close-knit nature of the whole community.


September 17, 2012:  Inside the HEAD -- Week Three (Day ten)

Did you know that today is Constitution Day?  Did you know that the Department of Education requires institutions that receive federal funding to have scheduled events focused on the Constitution?  I knew this -- once.  In a past life, I had someone from the government relations arm of an institution tell me of this requirement, and then we scrambled to meet the expectations.

However, I had forgotten all this when someone from my financial aid office asked me last week if we had events scheduled.  Not remembering any conversation about this from last year, I took the question to my academic leadership team, who also had never heard of it. We scrambled to get a faculty member in the history and government department to schedule a talk open to the whole college that would fulfill the requirement. 

Then, I find out today that we do have someone who manages the events on this day every year.  She just happens to be in a different part of the college than academics.  The person who kept track of this at my level is no longer with the institution.  In the past, the person in financial aid who might have communicated and reinforced the requirement is no longer with us, and it was her replacement who sent me the initial question, not knowing that maybe it could have been sent to someone outside of academics.

All in all, it's all settled and now we all know.  Still, it is an indication of the dangers of silos (everyone operating in their own tightly controlled area). Moreso, I kick myself (and mentally kick a few others) for not thinking through a sequence of checkpoints for finding out the status of Constitution Day.  It is in that spirit that I propose The Constitution of The United Silos.

Article I:    Communication between silos must be openly endorsed and engaged.

Article II:   Documentation must be clearly displayed.

Article III:  When a Representative of a Silo must depart, complete transference of knowledge related to duty and responsibility must occur.

Article IV:   When a question arises, a representative of the Silo should assume the answer exists and search for it before throwing hands up in exasperation.

Article V:   Anything related to the entity that provides funding should be routinely presented to Silo staff as reminder.

Article VI: Marketing is a Silo's friend.  Events must be marketed.

Article VII: When one leaves the mother land, one shouldn't completely forget the appropriate rules of the Silo from there.

Article VIII: Anyone who makes something harder than it needs to be should be subjected to Constipation Day Activities.