Sunday, July 26, 2009

making the most of economic scarcity

These are dark days for most public educational institutions, and Sierra College is no exception as we struggle to identify ways to cut our expenses in light of our funding reduction. Although we are probably in for a two or three-year period of belt-tightening, and I do not want to understate the genuine human toll that the current economic crisis is taking, I also think there will be some value gained from this harsh moment.
To begin with, it is natural for all organizations---from the smallest family unit to the largest for-profit corporation---to become complacent and less efficient in flush times. I suppose it is regrettable, though perhaps it is simply a product of human nature, that it often takes a financial crisis for us to take a hard look at our spending and our operations. Nevertheless, we need to see this crisis as our opportunity to become even more efficient and better at what we do. Specifically, our goals in overcoming this crisis should be to:
1. take a hard look at our programs, eliminate the ones that no longer serve a viable purpose, and bolster the ones which need to be revitalized. This is not as easy as it sound, of course, and I know that eliminating programs comes with a very real human cost. We should approach this task as humanely as possible, but we should not avoid it altogether. In the final analysis, it is inhumane, in my opinion, to keep programs on life-support which have outlived their purpose;
2. focus much of our energy on rigorous human resource optimization. That means, in plain English, eliminating positions which do not contribute to the college's core mission. I am not advocating wide-scale layoffs or terminations, but we all know of people in large organizations who have lost their enthusiasm for work, and get by doing as little as possible. This is exactly the time to identify them and let them go. If the organization has done a good job of human resource management, those employees will have received plenty of notice that their performance is lacking, and plenty of opportunity to turn things around;
3. scrutinize all of our business practices to make our organization as energy-efficient and sustainable as possible. This runs the gamut from eliminating paper and energy waste to encouraging car-pooling and public transportation. I would appoint a task force comprised of representatives from all significant segments of the campus to aggressively identify such opportunities, and I would act on as many of their recommendations as we could;
4. emphasize frugality in all things, and eliminate the practice of roll-over budgets, moving closer to a zero-based budgeting model;
5. look for ways to increase educational efficiency by increasing class-sizes, consolidating sections, and eliminating classes which do not directly contribute to the core mission of the community college;
6. seek opportunities to partner with other community organizations serving synergistic purposes as ours. For example, instead of having three or four high schools and colleges in the area teaching automotive technology, I would attempt to consolidate those programs into a single center, thus reducing the cost and increasing the quality of a valuable educational program;
7. aggressively pursue alternative revenue sources, including grants, endowments, and intellectual property royalties. To do so, I would seek ways to promote the alumni association, and encourage student and faculty projects which have potential commercial application.
I am sure that there are other options I have not included---but these would be, in my opinion, a good start toward making lemonade from the economic lemon.

Friday, July 17, 2009

If I were college president

As college president, my principal goals would be to:
1. infuse a passion for student success into the culture of the college. I would assign every new full-time student to a faculty mentor, a counselor, and a small peer cohort. I would challenge all faculty and staff to learn the names of as many students as possible, and to spend time talking with students each day. I would reinforce this culture by recognizing customer service orientation in hiring, evaluation, and career advancement criteria;
1. add a service learning requirement for all graduates. I would encourage students to earn service learning credit by tutoring younger students. In this way, we could provide extra help to struggling students, and reinforce the obligation of all citizens to serve their communities;
2. add a capstone project requirement for all graduates, to evidence their mastery of the skills required for their discipline;
3. commit the college to environmental stewardship, and find concrete ways to encourage energy efficiency and sustainable practices;
4. commit the college to civility, and host frequent debates and guest lectures reinforcing this value;
5. commit the college to fiscal stewardship, and continuously find concrete ways to eliminate waste , conserve resources, live frugally, and keep a lean management structure;
6. continuously seek ways to recognize and reward excellent employee performance, identify improvement goals for struggling employees, and terminate those who will not strive for excellence;
7. model a passion for education by encouraging all qualified managers and non-instructional employees to teach a class, hosting regular forums devoted to pedagogy, and support the professional development of all employees to the fullest extent possible;
8. model good citizenship by regularly hosting intellectual and cultural events for the community, encouraging all faculty and staff to find volunteer service opportunities within the community, and maintain a vigorous dialogue with community leaders to identify potential partnerships for the common good;
9. promote wellness by offering healthy meals and snacks for students and employees, and by finding ways to encourage and reward physical and emotional fitness; and
10. promote continual innovation by encouraging and supporting new initiatives at all levels, and by discouraging blame and fear of failure.
I realize, of course, that some of these goals are abstract, and that turning them into reality requires the consent and cooperation of many constituencies, but these would, nevertheless, constitute my guiding principles for a college presidency.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

the college tour rite of passage

I spent the past few days on the road with my daughter, Elizabeth, visiting universities she might attend in the Fall of 2010. Lizzy has spent the past year at Sierra College, where I work, and has to decide which university she will attend after one more year at Sierra. We left our home in Folsom on Saturday morning, and spent the evening with family in Los Angeles. On Sunday, we toured UC Irvine and CSU Long Beach. On Monday, we drove up to San Luis Obispo and visited Cal Poly. On Tuesday, we drove further north and visited CSU Monterey Bay.
Lizzy liked UC Irvine and CSU Monterey Bay, but didn't care for Cal Poly or CSU Long Beach. I'm not sure that she could tell you exactly what she didn't like about Cal Poly or CSULB, but her reactions are, in my opinion, fairly typical of how students select the colleges they attend. While we parents fret over the reputation of their academic programs, tuition and living costs, availability of financial aid, distance from home, and a variety of other criteria, most students, it seems to me, ultimately make their decisions based on the overall "feel" of the campus---which may depend on such fortuitous elements as the weather on the day of the visit, whether students and staff seemd friendly, the student's own mood on the day of the visit, etc.
In Lizzy's case, she has made it clear that her first choice is none of the colleges we visited. She wants to go to school in San Diego, so she will apply to UCSD and CSUSD. Her fall-backs will be UCI and CSUMB. I still consider our trip a success, because knowing where you DON'T want to go is as important as knowing where you want to go. Moreover, I had a great four days in the car with my daughter, and I know that those occasions will become increasingly rare.
I am saddened, however, by the knowledge that many kids her age will never have the opportunity to visit several colleges, or even the encouragement to attend college. Some of these kids may have parents who simply lack the means or the knowledge to guide their children through the intricacies of college choice, applications, and financing. I'd love to help organize and lead an annual college tour for such kids through Sierra College.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

What the corporate world can learn from academia

In my last post, I wrote about what academia can learn from the business world. Today, I will discuss the other side of the coin.
First, the business world would do well to take a look at academic governance models, or, more specifically, shared governance models. Shared governance stands for the proposition that decisions in higher education should be made as democratically as possible. This is basically the opposite of a top-down hierarchical model. Shared governance can be cumbersome, so it is not appropriate in all instances, but decisions tend to be better and easier to implement when they are collectively made. This point may seem too obvious to state, but the desire to "call the shots" is simply irresistible to most chief executive officers(including CEOs of higher education institutions), though they may rationalize their edicts from on high in different terms.
Second, the business world would benefit from protecting employees' freedom of expression, in the tradition of academic freedom honored by colleges and universities. When employees are not afraid to say what they really think, the institution is better off. This is not to say that all speech should be protected. Sexual harassment and racist epithets are examples of speech which should be punished, but employees should not be inhibited about disagreeing with their supervisors.
Third, business should provide employees with that unique perquisite of the academic world: the sabbatical. Professors at many universities are provided with paid sabbaticals every seven years. This is, no doubt, a costly benefit, but it yields rewards in re-energized employees, higher morale, and, often, in new insights or innovations that result in new profit opportunities for the employer.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

what academia can learn from the business world

Many of my friends in academia are wary of the corporate world, and resist all suggestions that sound too close to business practices. I can understand some of that wariness, but there are some good models in the corporate world worthy of emulation. Here are a few which I would borrow:
1. Merit pay: well-run companies know that you get what you pay for. If compensation is low, relative to your competitors, you get less-motivated employees. Though educators obviously do not go into their line of work intending to become wealthy, they also have mortgages to pay and kids to put through college. They are not impervious to pay or benefits. Do you want extraordinary performance from your employees? Then treat them extraordinarily(and that includes pay bonuses) when they excel. If you are satisfied with mediocre performance, then mediocre pay will ensure that you meet your goals. Some educators oppose merit pay because they worry that it will lead to caprice, but that, in my view, is a smaller risk than the risk of squelching excellence by not rewarding stellar achievement.
2. Performance measures: in the business world, the ultimate measure of performance is usually profit, and that is not a viable measure in the non-profit academic world. But the academic world can measure itself and its employees in objective terms. Those terms could include the number of students who succeed in meeting their academic or professional goals, for instance, divided by the number of instructors, or by total revenues. Such measures are imperfect at best, but they are not irrelevant to compare our performance from year to year, or to the performance of our competitors.
3. Entrepreneurship: the best companies foster creativity and risk-taking. They do not ridicule new ideas or punish all failures. Those are two excellent tools for squelching innovation. Colleges tend to favor tradition, which is a good thing, but one that is often carried too far.
Those are just a few of the practices and values which I think the academic world could more effectively embrace. In my next blog, I will discuss some of the academic practices which the corporate world should adopt.

Monday, May 28, 2007

looking past high school

If I had my way, every high school in the country would have a year-long class for juniors, devoted to studying college and career choices. What subject is more important for our juniors than planning their imminent futures while there is still time to make such choices consciously, and with some understanding of their many options?
I did pretty well in high school(class salutatorian), but, due to my total ignorance about college and careers, I ended up going to study forestry at Utah State University, only to find that I had no aptitude or much interest in science, and that the study of science was essential to a career in forestry. Instead, I had a romantic idea of occupying a ranger station somewhere in the mountains, with a dog and a jeep, watching for forest fires. My high school counselor, whom I saw for a grand total of about thirty minutes, recommended Utah State and Humboldt---then the top two forestry schools---after asking me what I wanted to do. I don't blame the counselor for my own ignorance, but I wish we had had enough time for her to ask me WHY I wanted to go into forestry, whether I understood the actual nature of the job, the course of study required, etc. It's not like there were no other choices: I had always wanted to be a lawyer, but somewhere in my junior or senior year of high school I lost track of that. I won't say that I wasted my two years at Utah State, nor do I have any regrets about the way life has worked out, but I sure would do things differently if I knew then what I know now. Wouldn't you?
Many affluent, well-educated families take their kids on a tour of college campuses in their junior or senior year, but most low-income families do not. If you didn't go to college yourself, it is unlikely that you can give much advice to your kids about choosing a college or a career path, except, perhaps, for the obvious adages. My parents, who fortunately were blessed with a healthy dose of practical intelligence, nevertheless had all of an eighth-grade Mexican education, so while they knew enough to encourage us to go to college(all three of us did), could hardly have advised us about compensation trends in various professions, admissions requirements for competitive colleges, fellowship options for graduate school, etc. My own kids will have better awareness of their choices than I did, but even then, I wish they could have at least taken a video tour of Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and the like, while they were juniors, so that they could make the necessary effort to have a fighting chance at admission before the choices narrowed(I know, I know, even the junior year is too late for THOSE choices, but you have to start somewhere!).
Who will pay for this class? That, of course, is the sixty-four million dollar question that can decimate any good idea. But I have a better question: who will pay the price of prison (or welfare) for kids who turn to crime because they see no other options?
I don't know how to get such a class started at a high school near me, but wouldn't I love to teach it?! I would have guest speakers from various careers, college admissions representatives, and actual and virtual tours of a wide range of colleges, and I wouldn't charge a penny for my time.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

nervously diving into unfamiliar waters

For a non-techie like me, this new blog world is a little daunting. But I am excited by the opportunity to share my views in a public forum, despite the implicit vanity of that interest.
First, a short background: I am the Associate Dean of Business at a community college in California, after teaching and practicing Business Law for over twenty years. I am the first-born son of Mexican immigrants, husband of a third-grade teacher, father of three college students and one high school student. I assume that all of these facts shape my view of the world to some extent.
Just to get all of the traditional biases on the table, I am a political independent, somewhat conservative on economic policy and somewhat liberal on social policy. I named my blog DeanView because most of the opinions I plan to share have to do with education. I hope to run a college someday, and put some of these views into place.
Just to get my feet wet, I'll start with a relatively safe topic: civility. I believe that our society has become increasingly unwilling, and perhaps unable, to engage in civil discourse, and that a primary objective of our high schools and colleges should be to reverse this trend and teach our students to embrace and learn the art of civility. You know what I mean: on any day of the week you can turn your radio or television set to a channel featuring a strident host who villifies anyone with a differing political viewpoint. You can find such hosts on either end of the political spectrum, and their vitriol is poisoning our great democratic experiment. The abandonment of civil disourse is exactly how societies fragment into violent factions, as we have seen over and over again in the history of this planet. Both sides seem to believe that the other will go away if they just push hard enough. My experience is just the opposite: there seems to be an equal and opposite reaction to every political gain either side realizes, and perhaps that is as it should be in a pluralistic democracy. Which is not to say that I don't have strong political opinions of my own, but that we need to find a way to live with each other even when we disagree vehemently.
Our high schools and colleges are the best place to model and teach civility, not simply as a fundamental virtue, but as a means to ensure our survival as a democratic republic. This lesson is more important, I think, than all of the other subjects we require our students to take, and I would build it right into the curriculum at any school I led.
I have much more to say on this subject, but my wife says that if I make this blog too long, no one will read it, so I will save more for another day...