another habit I got from screenwriting


I first got into higher education as an adjunct professor in screenwriting, having worked for a dozen years mostly on stories begun by others, doing rewrites and adaptations. It was fun, trying to make stories more visual, lifelike, or involving. Like a lot of adjuncts, I kept doing that work as I taught college on the side, giving my students a very current and realistic understanding of the field.

In the early meetings I’d take with producers, either to interview for the job or, after signing, agree to the story goals, I paid more attention to what the team wanted than to what my predecessors had written. Writing is very hard work and also a little daunting, and so it’s too tempting to go back to the previous draft and begin the repairs on each scene. But really, you want a clear idea of what you need to create, before you can tell which parts should change.

If you look too closely at the existing script too early, then you lose the very freshness you were hired to bring. And it’s hard to get back, something I came to think of, and later teach, as the tyranny of the first draft. It insidiously affects how you think.

Cut to 2017. At my campus we’ve had people arguing for a few months about a set of contradictory policies, and who has standing and which document controls. As an administrator it’s my job to pore over them and then render judgment, but I resist.

For one thing, it’s kind of boring. But really, I think the written record is less important than finding agreement on how things should be. Since the present documents are inconsistent, we’re hardly bound by them anyway. They’re just a prior draft, created by well meaning but flawed people a lot like us. So escape the tyranny, and focus instead on a way forward.

My insight, from writing straight-to-video science fiction.


It reminds me of a conversation I found puzzling a couple of years ago, but which now makes more sense to me. I was at a higher ed conference, and seated next to me for dinner was a senior administrator who’d taught chemistry.

She was insistent not only that it helped her do her current job, but that it was indispensable. She really believed that if you wanted to lead a university you should first study chemistry, because it disciplines your thinking about cause and effect, and limiting reactions, and the invisible bonds that make a process possible.

Fans of broad, liberal learning – that is, me and the people like me – will tell you the choice major doesn’t matter. Just go to college, because no matter what your focus you won’t use it much after the first one or two jobs.

But what if we’re exactly wrong? It seems instead as if no matter what your focus, you will indeed use it, and for the rest of your life, just in ways that are impossible to predict.

Image credits: Green Communications,


the regular order


I was moved by John McCain’s address to the senate this week. Shortly after casting a deciding vote to allow continued debate on health care, he took the chance to reflect on partisanship, and the importance of rising above it.

Some in the press thought it was inconsistent for him to call for compromise shortly after casting a key party-line vote, but I didn’t. He wasn’t supporting anything more than continued debate, and then asked his colleagues to keep it reasonable.

And it’s a really good speech. You can read the whole thing (thanks to the Washington Post) at the link above, or by clicking on John’s face.

A part I especially like:

Our system doesn’t depend on our nobility. It accounts for our imperfections, and gives an order to our individual strivings that has helped make ours the most powerful and prosperous society on earth. It is our responsibility to preserve that, even when it requires us to do something less satisfying than ‘winning.’ Even when we must give a little to get a little. Even when our efforts manage just three yards and a cloud of dust, while critics on both sides denounce us for timidity, for our failure to ‘triumph.’

I hope we can again rely on humility, on our need to cooperate, on our dependence on each other to learn how to trust each other again and by so doing better serve the people who elected us. Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio and television and the Internet. To hell with them. They don’t want anything done for the public good. Our incapacity is their livelihood.

Let’s trust each other. Let’s return to regular order.

dove on tug of war

My state is experimenting with some changes to our political process that might help us recover a productive middle ground. For example, opening our primary elections to voters of any party reduces the incentive to appeal only to the base. Appointing a broad, multi-party commission to set electoral districts discourages gerrymandering, improving the odds of success for any candidate willing to compromise.

Although it’ll be a while before we know if such moves work, they make intuitive sense. And as McCain points out elsewhere in the same speech, the public agenda is urgent enough that we should be trying hard to do better.

Topping the shared to-do list are the usual – mass incarceration, climate change, border security, trade – things that we know are serious but on which no one can make progress alone.
degrees of inequality

By coincidence, around the time McCain was speaking I was reading a 2014 book by Suzanne Mettler, Degrees of Inequality, that hit some of the same themes.

She persuades me that higher education belongs on that list of urgent, unaddressed public issues, too. Until reading this I’d thought of ourselves less as a symptom of political gridlock, and more as a potential cure. If we could only mint enough civic-minded alumni, we could all get on with it. Heck, some of our grads might even run for office.

But she sees politics and policy behind many of our sector’s current problems: rising tuition, rising student indebtedness, serious constraints on access and inequitable outcomes.

She writes: “All told, higher education today is becoming a caste system in which students from different socioeconomic backgrounds occupy distinct strata, and their experiences within those tiers end up making them increasingly unequal.”

Allow me to pause for editorial emphasis: WTF!?

We tell ourselves we’re in the equalizing biz, first rungs on the ladder of opportunity. But instead she describes a system that looks like this:

SES outcomes

Because, as Mettler writes, offspring of the rich go to non-profit privates and flagships, often on scholarships, while the poor are likelier to enroll in for-profits and community colleges, incurring more debt from the former, and lower odds of graduating from both.

I’m familiar with these arguments and find them convincing, but still appreciated the book’s synthesis and case-making. Here was the epiphany:

But the crisis is also fundamentally political. We have plenty of higher education policies created in the past but they function less well than they once did, generating unintended consequences or deteriorating due to their own design features, or the impact of other policies on them.

In short, they require updating and maintenance. Public officials should be fully capable of these tasks. The problem is that the political system today has grown dysfunctional. It is paralyzed by polarization that inhibits even these routine activities. In the rare instances when government functions, it takes on the character of a plutocracy, as lawmakers join forces across party lines to represent the advantaged and neglect the needs of ordinary Americans.

It’s a thought worthy of a senator in his waning days.

Image credit: Atlantic

news from the beyond

If you haven’t changed jobs from one site to another in a large, sprawling organization then I highly recommend it. You get to learn from a safe distance how your different projects and relationships pan out after you’re gone.

Attending_Your_Own_Funeral_9959It’s a bit like seeing what the world will be like after you’re dead. Not in the It’s a Wonderful Life or time travel sense, where you see things as if you were never there in the first place. It’s more in the Tom Sawyer sense, where you used to be around, had the life you experienced, and then get to see the picture continue to evolve without you.

The experience reminds me of advice from my friend Susan Albertine, former vice president at the Association of American Colleges and Universities: cultivate the young. Like a good regional orchestra or ballet company, she would get unsettled by higher ed events that drew mostly the middle aged. I mean we’re great, but we’re not exactly the future. If you want the work to be around later, then you need people who will be, too.

I’ve seen this in just the past seven months of my absence from the headquarters of the California State University. While there I was associated with a number of projects that I believed strongly in, and that I tried to promote. Those that had advocates in a range of career phases have continued. Those that didn’t have not, and may not have deserved to.


And beyond the projects there are the working relationships, daily routines I had with people I knew well and liked very much, but don’t see as often. From here in the hereafter I watch them, forging connections with others, finding new combinations of productive interaction, and moving along.

The results, as you’d guess, are surprising and mixed: I’ve been delighted by the resourcefulness of colleagues who now have more chances to innovate. But I’ve also seen a mistake or two coming, that I might have prevented if I were still there.

The thing is, they are all good developments, valuable learning for both sides, but together amount to a kind of out-of-body experience. And they’re a humbling reminder that sometimes when we try to help we manage to, and other times we’re just in the way.

That’s worth taking note of as I work on things in my new home.

Image credits: TV Tropes, the Sensible Psychic

another dispatch from the trenches

My shift from state policy to campus administration unearthed another marvel last week, which is the power of the written record. Our ability to share our thoughts and decisions over time and distance with people we’ll never meet is really kind of amazing. The tiniest actions are perpetual, and cumulative.

And if you want to see it as vividly as I do, then go somewhere with gaps in the record. For every such gap in my new home, relationships and learning start from scratch. This is especially true because I’m part of a small team of newcomers, temps, and transients. For us documentation is everything, because our combined personal history is roughly nil.

But our predecessors behaved rationally for their own contexts rather than ours, and resorted comfortably to handshake deals and tacit horse trading. And so here I am, looking at a stack of unapproved travel claims and hardware purchases, and asking one of the most valued professors on campus if he has proof of prior permission. It’s not a good spot to find myself in.

On the one hand I need to remember that my perspective has been seriously warped by years under the magnifying glass in a giant public bureaucracy, where the memos are numbered and the emails subpoenaed. That’s a world that cherishes the written record as proof it is impersonal, and thus free of cronyism or corruption. It keeps us out of jail.

On a single campus such fussiness may be misdirected. Too much of it makes you less effective, not more, as people wonder why you’re always so suspicious.

I also have to remember that interpersonal commitments are often invisible, even to the participants. My predecessors on campus probably thought their paper trail was perfectly complete, and somewhere in my old office building, my successors may marvel that I kept such scanty records.


I’m not sure where that leaves me, but for now my new boss and I have agreed to err on the side of more record keeping. The campus is getting bigger, the world is getting smaller, and really, in the long run we’re all temps.

Image credits: Bates College,

dispatch from the trenches

pancakeSince leaving CSU headquarters for a job on one of our campuses, I’ve been attuned to the differences of working not with policy makers, but actual educators. A few insights, still in progress:

This is way more fun. My stint away from campus was a little over nine years, and even though I missed it constantly, I’d forgotten how really wonderful it is. A college campus is a microcosm of the world, with facilities for food, housing, work, play, and interaction, but oriented toward a noble purpose, the personal and intellectual development of ourselves and each other, even strangers. It’s life, but with more of the good parts, and less of the rest. Every day I go to work puts me in a good mood. No kidding. I take random walks across the campus just to be in it; last week the student government president noticed my third lap through the pancake breakfast and co-curricular tables, and called me on it.

The strains are different. There is something counterintuitive about work at a place like the Office of the Chancellor, which you would expect to mix the flabby ineffectiveness of the public sector with the flabby ineffectiveness of academic administration. Yet visitors are always struck by the sight of people doing work. They even comment on it. “Everyone here seems to be working all the time.” Well, yes. And as state support dwindles there are fewer of them in the office, to perform the same work or more.

Yet the relentless tilling on the cubicle farm didn’t prepare me for the qualitatively different strain of campus life. At my new job there are many signs of overworked colleagues well past their breaking point; two from this week will show you what I mean.

The first involved money, and the accidental transfer of a moderate sum into the wrong account. It’s no big deal, and we will fix it. But the shriek of protest was immediate and heartfelt, and not from the one whose money went missing, but from the one who got the windfall. She works ungodly hours at full tilt, and the prospect of taking on one more task, even a funded one, nearly prompted her resignation.

The second sign of materially different strain involved an invitation to lunch. My new campus home employs dozens of academic department chairs, and early assays of their inner stuff suggest remarkable quality in about a third of the cases: brilliant, dedicated, and almost eerily suited to edifying and motivating a very wide range of students. They are driven people.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised, but was, when my invitation to a lunch meeting was met in one case with protest. I mean, I was just asking for an hour, and I will provide the sandwich. It even comes with an apple and a cookie. But the response was a mix of tension and suspicion – what is this “lunch” going to evolve into? – and a plaintive close to the email: “I just can’t take on any more.”

That depth of emotion can mean only one thing: he wishes he could.

earth-day-2014And that’s what makes the strain here so different. In the system office I often had to appeal to the intrinsic motivation of my colleagues, and remember it in myself: the executive orders and coded memoranda and bar graphs represent real people trying to improve their lives, and we are charged by the public with helping them.

Here such appeals are unnecessary, because the real people are standing in front of us. We know them individually, we root for them. A lot of the time we even like them. And so for a significant number of my colleagues, the motivation is already keen, bottomless, and merciless. Coordinating their work is something I need to do differently than I used to, with fewer naked appeals to altruism and purpose. The colleagues whose help will make a difference already feel these things acutely, even painfully.

They don’t need our reminders, they just need our help.

Money isn’t always money. Most organizations, including the Office of the Chancellor, keep track of baseline or recurring dollars in one category, and one-time dollars in another. The one-time money could come from a grant, or a vacant salaried position, or residue from year before.

Campuses make this distinction too, but – at least on mine – the difference between them is a whole lot wider. Onetime money is a sinkhole of attention, effort, and coordination, consuming resources that won’t go to that precise use ever again. By contrast recurring dollars mean infrastructure, and staff support, and more full-time faculty to teach and govern the university before we burn out the handful who survived the recession. Recurring dollars are lifeblood.

mad-at-csu-live-performanceMy last few months at the system office included a tense, lengthy negotiation with the State of California for the support of our student success initiatives. They offered us millions of dollars above the typical enrollment budget, but it was onetime funding. We tried so hard and so often to explain why that wasn’t helpful, and why we really needed a baseline commitment, that the governor’s staff finally told us point blank to stop saying so. They were sick of hearing about it, and by then so was I.

But now that I’m on a campus, I think if anything we should have been more insistent. You don’t improve graduation rates and eliminate achievement gaps in temporary earmarks one year at a time. Instead you have to build it into your way of life. And the money to do that is so materially different from other money, it practically needs a different word.

That’s what I’m learning so far.

More field notes to follow.

Image credits: Union University, CSU Dominguez Hills

news from Bowling Green, KY


Western Kentucky University has a lot in common with the California State Universities that have employed me for around ten years. It’s an access-oriented, regional comprehensive university, it’s proud of its continuing academic quality in the face of unpredictable challenges, and it would like to improve its graduation rates.

To that end, the university leaders are looking at educational practices that engage their students personally in their learning, making them less likely to drop out.

On Friday I paid WKU a visit to learn more, and share what we’re doing in California. Our discussions focused on high-impact practices, and making them work for a greater share of WKU students by identifying a handful that can be offered consistently, equitably, and campus-wide.

For example, like some CSU campuses, WKU may decide to focus on service learning, undergraduate research, and internships in particular. Those few would then be systematically offered, coded into student records, and regularly assessed for impact.

The links in this sentence will take you to my slides from the morning presentation and the afternoon workshop.

For my part, these are points I want to remember from Friday’s meetings:

  1. Everyone is an educator. Although faculty are authors of WKU’s educational programs, I was struck that our meetings were attended in equal parts by advisers, staff, student leaders, administrators – pretty much everyone who interacts with students. I think one value of high-impact practices is that they take advantage of all the ways humans learn; to that end, this full-spectrum participation seems especially important.
  2. Intentional work requires ongoing professional development. WKU’s efforts in this area are led by Jerry Daday, Executive Director of its Center for Faculty Development. His involvement will be crucial: during a closing discussion of the resources needed for scale-up, people said they needed dedicated training for staff and faculty even more than they needed money.
  3. Colleges will want a role. This was the biggest surprise of my visit, that deans and associate deans need to see themselves in the emerging approach, and will be unhappy if they can’t. Because high-impact practices are often connected to the student’s choice of major, departments won’t feel their identities threatened. And at the large scale of the whole university, picking a handful of signature high-impact practices for everyone will strengthen the institution’s identity. But what about the layer in between the campus and its departments – say, the College of Arts and Letters, or the College of Nursing?

I’m not sure what to do about that. A good answer may lie in integrated approaches to curriculum, like the AAC&U GEMs project, or in “meta-majors,” broad clusters of related subjects that students pursue before they know exactly what to major in. Such integrated pathways may reside in a single college, and lend themselves to a distinct set of high-impact practices.

(References to meta-majors are getting more common, but the field doesn’t have a single authority I can link you to. One example I like is from Complete College America, which describes meta-majors in its “Guided Pathways to Success” toolkit. See the PowerPoint here, and especially slide 22.)

Or maybe, as some in the meetings believed, bringing along the colleges just isn’t a problem: we need those administrative units behind the scenes, and not because our students should know where they are on the org chart.

I get it, but I’m not so sure. We may find that more should be done at the college level with high-impact practices, and how they bring students in, and support their decision to stay.

team science part two

This follows an earlier post on team science, which considered the growing share of research problems that don’t seem solvable by lone researchers.

For universities this is unfortunate because our inherited structures of higher education, things like the nested hierarchies of colleges and departments, and rules for faculty promotion and tenure, assume that people’s research, scholarship, and creative activity is compartmentalized and easy to attribute to individuals.

As the frontiers of knowledge get more complicated and interdisciplinary, new research looks less and less like the model we’re set up for.

This week a joint UC-CSU project called CREDITS met at Lake Arrowhead to consider team science. Participants were half faculty and half administrators, and heard from experts in the ways research groups form, function, and sometimes unravel.


Such retreats are a privilege of jobs like mine, of course – the idea that you leave your daily routines to meet and hash out alternate approaches to the whole machinery is almost dizzyingly rarefied.

But my own purpose was very down to earth: as academic administrators we regularly need to evaluate the work of people in disciplines we don’t know much about, and traditionally we’ve done that by deferring to the opinions of other experts in the same field. So if an entomologist is up for some kind of recognition or promotion, you ask other entomologists if the candidate’s work appears in reputable bug journals.

Such expedients fail in a world of team science, where a breakthrough may be celebrated outside of the faculty member’s home discipline, and result from an effort with dozens, or sometimes thousands, of teammates. How do you know what’s worthwhile, if the seminal understanding in “ant routing” was appreciated less by other ant scientists but more by UPS dispatchers, management theorists, and environmentalists?

This question of appropriate attribution goes beyond trophies and certificates: in tenure cases it’s literally someone’s job at stake.

credits-1So that’s what I was watching for.

On the administrator track I saw presentations from Kyle Lewis, Dan Stokols, Maritza Salazar, and Renee Rottner, whose own work is itself interdisciplinary, serving as examples as well as guidance. They draw from sociology, psychology, mathematics, counseling, and management, among other fields. But what struck me about their research wasn’t just its varied source materials, but also the numerous ways it’s been applied.

That is, each has consulted to private businesses, philanthropy, and multiple branches of the military – pretty much anyone trying to organize collective action. Recognizing their work appropriately isn’t just a matter of checking for citations among other team-science thinkers, or bylines in the Quarterly Journal of Cooperation-ology. On the contrary, their contributions are important precisely because they transcend the boundaries of expertise, and are applied by people in other fields.

I think there are implications in that for higher ed, and that our tenure committees – or for that matter our graduate programs and department curriculum committees – might do a better job of recognizing significant contributions if they included people from other departments, or even from outside of colleges and universities altogether.

We include some external evaluators already, in things like tenure review and grant applications. So what I’m calling for isn’t a difference of paradigm so much as of emphasis. The cases I’ve participated in consider expertise the real litmus test, and use outside triangulation as a kind of corroboration after the fact.

Maybe it’s time we reverse that.