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.


what filmmaking teaches

Before working in higher education I worked in film, as a writer and small-time producer. So when I concluded that such a background is excellent preparation for a particularly 21st century skill set, I dismissed it as personal bias. After all, movie making isn’t a new business.


But it has struck me more than once that the virtues of teamwork, ad hoc and project-based relationships, and personal expression are at a new premium.

NYT HollywoodThis was corroborated about a year ago in a New York Times article on Hollywood and the Future of Work, making me feel a little less parochial.

So having read that and thought about it I’ll go the rest of the way, and add that a background in filmmaking is also excellent preparation for academic administration in particular. Bear with me.

Faculty, advisors, and program leads are artists, whose individual areas of expertise are no more available to me than those of a cinematographer or gaffer. For a producer, just as for a campus administrator, about the best you can do is chart a clear course and then try to get people the equipment they need. For me, there was nothing jarring about joining an enterprise of shared governance, where the decision-making authority is distributed across the rank and file. Movies really can’t happen otherwise.

Now that I’m off the campus backlot altogether and in a statewide system office, my role is probably more like studio flunky than small-time producer, but even from here the analogy holds up eerily well. We have a slate of campuses, we study the numbers they return, we make visits when appropriate. And we report upstream to our real bosses, whether taxpayers or shareholders, and try to help them make sense of apparent chaos.

It can be fun in its way, but it’ll never be like life on the set.

Image credits:, New York Times

team science part one

web meeting

Increasingly I find myself joining or convening teams online, for some focused discussion that may take half an hour to an hour. In a world of laptops, smart phones, and tablets, all webcam enabled, I’m getting new insights into my friends’ living rooms, bedrooms, and airline preferences.

I’m also learning that for a given task and ad hoc group of people, two or three of these short meetings, spaced about a week apart, can be more effective than conference calls or traveling to a single longer meeting.

But with longer and more complicated projects, the collaboration is harder to optimize. And what we’re seeing with the development of knowledge – a core business of higher education – is that the projects are all getting longer and more complicated.

That is, we face a dwindling number of pressing research questions that can be answered by a solitary faculty member. Instead, the new premium is on interdisciplinary teams, say in combinations of chemists, political scientists, economists, and engineers, pulling together to compare competing energy policies. Or cognitive scientists, educators, psychologists, social workers, nutritionists, and pediatricians figuring out the critical components of the first year of human life.


These are questions that universities are well positioned to take on. We have the carrying capacity, the troves of smart people from different walks of life and ways of knowing. They are each expert in some field of inquiry.

What hardly any of my colleagues and I are expert in is how to work together toward a common goal. We may have developed our share of common sense and interpersonal skills, but colleges and universities aren’t especially known for either. Until recently we were mostly collections of cranky soloists, with a lot to learn from the emerging field of team science.

Last year the National Academies Press published Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science, a sobering look at the challenges inherent in group research at scale. For higher education I think a few of the NAP findings and recommendations stand out.

The writers open with advice for the teams themselves, calling for intentional selection and then targeted professional development for each member, taking into account each one’s specific personality and expertise. In a separate recommendation they call for research and professional development just for the team leaders. And for geographically distributed teams that use virtual meetings – a growing part of my own job – they advise additional team-building exercises and some room for local autonomy.

They close with a set of recommendations for funders to appropriately incentivize and support team science. And in between is this recommendation leveled at higher ed:

Recommendation 6: Universities and disciplinary associations should proactively develop and evaluate broad principles and more specific criteria for allocating credit for team-based work to assist promotion and tenure committees in reviewing candidates.


In other words, we shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves among idiosyncratic loners if our system favors them.

I’ve seen universities try different things to overcome the centrifugal force of disciplines and departments. Some are structural, like creating centers for multi-faceted inquiry into a particular complicated problem, like the Institute for Palliative Care at CSU San Marcos, or the tradition at CSU Channel Islands of coordinating annual searches across departments to create research cohorts. Others are mostly rhetorical but still effective, intentional messaging from the top and written promotion policies that value teamwork.

For the last few months I’ve been advising a team-science project called CREDITS, which is itself a large-scale collaboration. It originated as a partnership between California’s more selective and research-focused UC system and the CSU system of regional comprehensives, where I work. We’ve had in-person meetings and conference calls, and reviewed applications from faculty to join an upcoming retreat.

We asked applicants about their experience in team science, and what they found challenging. Two answers have stuck with me:

From a UC geneticist who works with government agencies, mathematicians, and attorneys: “The main obstacle to collaborative projects, in my view, is that a project is not necessarily at the same level on all the participants’ priority list, and this can result in frustrating delays.”

From a researcher in international coastal flooding: “This work is inherently interdisciplinary. As a coastal engineer, I work closely with other engineers, ecologists as well as economists and risk analysts to quantify the risk reduction value of coastal ecosystems and enhance their consideration within coastal planning and policy-making. The foremost challenge was understanding the language of another discipline, communicating my ideas and work to experts in other fields, and reaching a consensus on research goals, outcomes and process.”

I’ve thought of these two submissions more than once in just the last week, in places I didn’t expect.

To raise their graduation rates, all 23 California State Universities are trying to improve the student experience, an effort that creates new connections among faculty, front-line advisers, and a surprising number of back offices, all struggling with mismatched priorities and murky reporting relationships. Last Thursday I spoke to a doctoral student at San Diego State about her research into exactly what that’s like, and what steps administrators can take to make such collaborations easier. I’ll share her findings with you when they’re ready.

A little later the same day, I was in a meeting on the redesign of the CSU’s statewide web site. For decades it’s been organized entirely from our perspective, each department getting some dominion over pages to maintain. The redesign leadership is heroically shifting all that to a team approach, aiming for a visitor-centered site organized not by what we do, but by what visitors want to know about us.

Created with Nokia Smart Cam

Curiously, both of these were research-driven discussions, and both involved people across a mix of “disciplines” or ways of knowing, all rummaging around for a common way to talk to each other.

There is a lot at stake as we all try to get better at this – for the health of our planet, for mitigating coastal floods, and for simply getting more people through college, precisely to take on all those other problems.

But I wonder if we’re doing enough in higher education for this, or if the proficiencies of teamwork deserve more attention in the undergraduate curriculum.

Like the faculty who applied to the CREDITS retreat, my colleagues and I are too often stymied not by gaps in our specialized learning, but by under-developed tools for getting along with each other. We seem ignorant of things people outside of academia have already figured out.

The retreat is next month, and I’ll report back then.

Image credits:,