sensing the tide

title slide

This is today’s presentation to graduate students in the Collaborative Online Doctorate in Educational Leadership (CODEL) program, offered jointly by the California State Universities in Fresno and Channel Islands. You can download a copy by clicking on the image of the snorkler.

They asked me to talk about approaches to academic leadership, a very fun subject to think about. These are some of the first students to enroll in the program, so for them learning to lead may be a little redundant.




HIPs and the New Learning Infrastructure

HIPs and the New Learning InfrastructureThis is today’s presentation to a group that’s convening in Los Angeles for Taking Student Success to Scale.

Four states – Georgia, Montana, Tennessee, and Wisconsin – are using their system offices and a subset of their public colleges and universities to jump-start adoption of High-Impact Practices at very large scale. The object is to make them available systematically and equitably, by using new tools of the emerging higher education infrastructure.

You can download a copy of the PowerPoint by right-clicking (or tapping and holding) the image here. The animations are visible in Slide Show, the narration in Page View, and there’s no need for attribution.

come geek out


My office at CSU Dominguez Hills is hiring a Division Coordinator of Academic Resource Reporting. You can read more and apply here.

We want someone to help us connect and make sense of the various ways the university allocates and tracks its scarcest resources: staff & faculty time, classroom space, and money. Too often the resources follow hunches, hype, or just habit. Better reporting could help us understand how we’re using what we have, and redeploy it for the sake of learning and equity.

3639-0Who knows what we’ll discover, once we follow the ropes through the pulleys.

Qualified applicants will be equally at home with machines and people. You should know spreadsheets, and how relational databases work. You should be able to win trust even as we ask awkward questions. You should be good at presenting complicated data clearly and simply.

Spectacularly qualified applicants will also be familiar with the policies and culture of the California State University, and know the acronym APBD. But if not you’ll catch on. (The first cultural quirk: don’t be thrown by the word “temporary” in the posting. This is a full-time, year-to-year renewable gig.)

The office is fun and friendly, except during the Halloween costume competition, which gets intense.

Deadline is February 19. Operators are standing by.

Image credits: Mind Design, Nuneaton Library

Dispositional Learning

title slideAt the annual Assessment Institute in Indianapolis on Sunday, I helped lead a workshop called – no kidding – Using ePortfolio to Document and Enhance the Dispositional Learning Impact of HIPs.

My co-facilitators were Marilee Bresciani Ludvik, Laura Gambino, and George Kuh. You can download our slides by clicking on Marilee’s brain, to the left.

Our hypothesis is that High-Impact Practices (HIPs) – things like learning communities, undergraduate research, and community engagement – may be especially good for promoting particular neuro-cognitive or “dispositional” learning.

These are the college learning outcomes that employers and society say they want more of – things like curiosity, persistence, self-regulation, flexibility, and the ability to work in diverse groups to tackle complex problems.

Leaders of HIPs programs on our campuses say they develop these outcomes in their students. They’re often frustrated that so far the benefits – the high impacts – have been counted in other ways, like personal satisfaction, higher grades, and increased likelihood to graduate. These are all valuable, but may gloss over some of the most powerful learning that comes with HIPs.

But this kind of learning can be hard to assess, which is where the student electronic portfolio comes in. By narrating and making sense of their educational experiences as they go along, and sharing with others their evolving sense of themselves, students may demonstrate how far they’ve developed these dispositional learning outcomes.

And as they do, they will give colleges a new set of tools for evaluating and improving the experiences we’re proudest to offer.


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