Monday, December 29, 2008

Apocalyptic Budgeting

It’s been nearly 75 years since the four horsemen of the apocalypse made their last appearance on a college campus. Then, the names were Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley, and Layden, and the scene was football: Notre Dame v. Army as reported by Grantland Rice. No more.

This year, universities from east to west will be entertaining pestilence, famine, war, and death with no leather helmets in sight. Pestilence has been around for some time, most obvious as a decaying commitment to full time faculty and students and the steady underfunding of the liberal arts and sciences coupled to the growing expectations for access to higher education. Now famine has arrived, ready to make vibrant colleges and universities into sickly caricatures. Can war and death be far behind? The civil wars have begun, between community colleges and research universities, between regional institutions and statewide behemoths, and between and among satellite campuses, learning centers, and on-line programs. Inter-institutional wars remain in full swing, and the competition for rankings is real.

The apocalypse is here or at least on the horizon. Programs with the death rattles of low enrollment or too little research funding are likely to be relegated to the ash heap of history. The end is near, and for nearly two years now, the “going out of business” signs have been up as institutions prepare to be swept over the precipice. Remember Antioch. Forget the pale horse; look for the black horse of death.

This Dickensian tale has everything, including the empty porridge bowl. And it’s not likely to get better very soon. Hiring will be frozen, salaries capped, travel restricted, corners cut, and expectations dashed. More may be done with less, although for institutions with less, it’s more likely that less will be done with less. Even institutions with the myopia of strained resources will be smart enough to see what’s coming, even as the number of college students rises. With luck, they will have brought their checkbooks, credit cards, and loan applications.

Within the month, targets will appear – to be shot at, if not hit. More will be made of having less: less access, fewer programs, less choice, fewer faculty. The knowledge economy will, simply, find it hard to build inventory.

Stay tuned for the first budget cutting lessons of the 21st century.

Dick Pratt is Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at Washington State University Tri-Cities.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Summer Reading

This year the stack was shorter than in some years past: books for our summer reading program. As I read them (well, most of them), I began ruminating about why we do this. It seems like a good idea. Other schools do it. These are reasons I never would have accepted from my daughters in their teenage years.

At “the meeting” to pick the book, the issue of why came up again (as it does every year). So, why do we do it? Good reasons, that’s why. College students, and prospects, read too little, read too much on computer screens, and read too little fiction. Then they come to college, and they continue to read too little from their texts (nearly all of which are “non-fiction” let’s say). We’ll fix that by making them read more.

As we go around the table discussing the pro and con, good and bad, interesting and dull points of our books, we always spend more time on why we do this than on picking the book. It’s been an evolution for us – from some critically important point we want to make with our first year students, to our desire to expand their cultural literacy, to making them think. It’s a reasonable strategy. We pick a book (fiction) that has not been made into a movie (no shortcuts, director’s cut, new interpretation), that makes us think and, we hope, our students, too. But, we’ve been vaguely unsettled about this for a couple of years. Most students like the books we make them read, they respond well enough in small group discussions, and we link the book to our start-up activities each year. Good enough but not good enough.

A summer book is an opportunity to create a different kind of community, at least on a campus small enough get the word out and survive a little jaded carping. We create community with new students, older students, faculty and staff through this one book. It’s an ephemeral community (except students talk about the book they loved or hated for years), a shared experience. For our newest students, it’s a first exposure to what we do: read, think, consider the meaning of ideas and interpret actions. For the remainder of our community, it’s a renewal of our commitment to learning and living together.

And, this summer you should read Stuart Onan’s “Last Night at the Lobster.” It will improve your vision.

Dick Pratt is Dean of the School of Arts & Sciences at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York.


Friday, October 05, 2007

In Defense of Meetings

Someone once remarked that football (American football) has two of the worst characteristics of American society: violence and meetings. Maybe so, but people who live out parts of their lives in the virtual world of Second Life (SL) apparently go there for meetings. Isn’t that weird?

A recent survey of Second Life users reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Wired Campus daily update today shows what’s really going on. New Media Consortium survey results show that two-thirds of SL users attend meetings in SL. Wow. So maybe meetings aren’t so bad.

Trying to get anything done on a college campus requires meetings. You can do lots of things by email, but building consensus on even mildly controversial topics requires human interactions: discourse and (with luck) nonlinear thinking emerging from having people in the room. If everyone had a web cam for an internet meeting, we might feel like we “looked ‘em in the eye.” Or maybe not. Try to read their body language over the web. Maybe this is why meetings work in SL (assuming avatars have body language).

Meetings without purpose are truly awful. Meetings with outcomes might be ok. From picking the color of the new carpet in the student center to settling on the requirements for transfer students, finding a reason for the meeting is key. And, some other business will get done by accident when people who need to talk about other things find themselves in the same time and place. Those incidental, accidental meetings often take two minutes and save an hour. So, have a meeting in your First Life (FL).

Dick Pratt is Dean of the School of Arts & Sciences at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Science and immigration

Many people, including members of Congress, think the population bomb has arrived on our doorstep disguised as immigrants. This is not the wave of out-of-control population growth we expected – even developing countries are seeing aging populations and declining birth rates. Scientists studying populations can inform the debate on US immigration policy. Will anybody listen?

Projections agree that human populations will continue to grow from the current 6.5 billion people to somewhere between 9-13 billion over the next 50-60 years barring a global pandemic or very significant changes in current human behavior. At the same time, the number of children under age 4 will actually decrease from current levels while the world adds 1.2 billion more senior citizens. So, the whole world will have the US social security problem: fewer and fewer young people to support a growing number of seniors.

The idea of a perpetually growing human population is starting to look, well, old. Worldwide, annual population growth rates peaked in the 1960s and have been falling. As people have moved and migrated to the world’s urban areas, fertility rates have fallen. In the urban environment, children are expensive and in developed and developing countries, the need for education related to job skills and pay makes children even more expensive. So, families have fewer children. This effect is dramatic in some societies (including our own): many countries in Europe, for example, have negative population growth (their shrinking populations further exacerbate their social security problem).

Scientists estimate that the rate of population growth will continue to decline because of urbanization and the increasing standard of living over the next fifty years. Getting from here to there may be a little tricky. Falling birth rates do mean fewer children but not fewer adults who need some support. And, the higher standard of living may produce more pollution per capita and a lower quality of life even if population growth abates. At the same time, some urban adult populations are seriously affected by HIV/AIDS – a problem of epic proportion in many African countries. Whether the adults will be there when the children grow up is uncertain, as is the kind of adults these children will become if they mature in a society ravaged by disease and possibly unable to care for and educate children.

Can scientists help us with immigration policy? Probably. Global changes in climate, availability of energy, and arable lands for food production are closely tied to immigration. Climate change means more variability in climate, more short-term famine (and starvation), and more problems in some societies. We already know that migration of deserts is affecting climate in Europe. If deserts expand, it is not difficult to predict even more migration pressure, possibly northward (or poleward in both hemispheres). People will simply leave inhospitable climes for better ones – just like the Oklahoma dust bowl of the 1930s.

Is immigration a threat? Maybe not, especially with regard to Mexico and other Latin American countries. That is, southern immigration is not a security threat, but it is an economic necessity. The millions to billions that might be spent securing the southern US border will clearly be spent for little purpose other than political breast beating. This does not mean that we should fling open the doors, but we should realize that building walls and fences has had an undesired effect: illegal immigration has increased. The harder we try to bar the door, the more valuable it is to find avenues around the barriers.

We should also look at the public realities. Increased immigration will likely more quickly reduce birth rates in the contributing countries. They are already headed down. Increased immigration will not take jobs away from US citizens. While politicians like to claim this is so, unemployment rates are already low and have been dropping. If there are US citizens who want to work, let them show up and offer their services – the agricultural industries and the meat packers are looking for them. In a nation of immigrants, why not control an open process rather than drive families into the southern deserts to die?

Dick Pratt is Dean of the School of Arts & Sciences at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York.

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Science in School

Anybody know how this (fill in your favorite technological device here) works? If America is to continue to be a world leader in innovation, you’d think we could at least program a VCR. Of course, we have now fixed that problem – we got TiVo and film studios are going to stop producing video tapes (I’m not making this up). So, get a DVD player to sit on your TiVo. Be happy, these things are made in China. What’s not made in China (yet) are too many clever new (profitable) ideas – like putting a KFC discount code in a commercial so that you have to learn how to stop and frame advance your TiVo to get the code. Who says we’re not ingenious?

In early December, I read Thomas Friedman (The World is Flat) writing in the New York Times that he is not ready to cede the 21st century to China and India. He might be a touch late on that, since the week before he wrote this, the American Council on Education released a report indicating that people in the US are not so sure about the value of studying more math and science at the college level. We’re split almost evenly for and against more math and science. People are dismissing science because it’s too hard and might hurt their grades (or their kids’ grades, I guess). The kids would call this a lame excuse. Go review your trigonometry.

If we are not going to invent the next cell phone (which seems to be done in Finland by Nokia), then we had better get cracking on something else. Right now, that seems to be biomedicine and advanced materials. We don’t make the plastics, we make the plastics better (right, BASF?).

Seriously, though, we live in a world invented by engineers, scientists, and technologists and sold to us by business people. So, you’d think it would be good to know how this stuff works. After all, today’s problems are caused by yesterday’s solutions. Try to unscrew a cross-threaded nut, if you don’t believe this.

Here’s a quick quiz. See if you or anyone around you knows the answer to more than one of these.

How do cell phones work? And why did they stop working in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina? What’s the cell in cell phone? Or, why does your phone work in both Peoria and Petaluma? Extra points if you know the difference between analog and digital (phones).

Why is it cold in the morning (usually colder than in the middle of the night)?

How do they keep the fizz in Coke (or Pepsi)? And, why does it go flat?

Can you dry your socks in a microwave oven?

What’s the difference between natural gas, gasoline, and biodiesel?

Why do we need electron microscopes?

Why do you get yourself, your kids, and your dogs (and cats) vaccinated? (Hint: so they won’t get sick is not an acceptable answer).

Where does the water in your house come from, and where does it go?

Why do old people wear glasses? (Why do some young people wear glasses?)

This is pretty simple stuff, so get to work. Next week, we will ask you how to program a VCR.

Dick Pratt is Dean of the School of Arts & Sciences at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Rank Rankings

It pays to have a sense of humor – or at least a strong stomach. Ask any college administrator who follows the rankings and ratings of US News and World Report. Whether any of this passes as news or has world-worthy impact is iffy. But, this is the week.

The ratings from the most recent academic year are based on data collected about a year or so ago. And, these ratings affect some decisions by some families about where the kids will go to college about a year from now. It’s a good deal for US News: families begin thinking about life after the senior year of high school. School is getting ready to start. Pick up a copy of this year’s rankings and ratings.

College administrators know the drill. Everyone understands rankings: football, basketball, colleges. College presidents know who the competition is. Only a few presidents get to sleep soundly through all of this. At Princeton, the question is “will we be first or tied for first?” Second is not likely. Outside the Ivy League and a few other colleges, the question is placement in the top tier, the second tier, the third tier, or those cards they stick in between the pages. Fourth tier institutions don’t really care about US News. So it goes.

This year was a little different, since US News puts gruesome details on a web site. On Friday, the magazine ranked a number of professional programs WRONG (what were they thinking?), placing a long list of college programs in a tie for first place. For a few fleeting hours, thirty or more universities were tied for first in particular programs in engineering and business (noticeably absent were the top schools in the US). Actually, all this nonsense happened on Wednesday but was “embargoed.” This timing gives colleges and universities some time to write the best story they can think of before the magazine hits the newsstands. So there. By Monday, the rankings had been corrected, the antacids consumed, and things settled down to normal. Princeton was number one.

The question is, did anyone notice? You see, US News thinks it is collecting information for the Spellman commission not selling magazines. Colleges have complained about the rankings, so US News methods are now well known (and “gamed” by some) and stable (meaning they keep collecting the same information and using it in similar ways year to year), although US News hasn’t figured out how to keep people from telling lies and no one knows (on most campuses) who actually fills out the forms. But here again, some presidents could sleep more soundly: fewer than one in five families use the rankings to pick a college.

The rankings are important to some people, but not most. US News competitor Time says rankings don’t matter. It’s fit that counts. Meaning, a good student fit into the right institution can blossom. Good fit, good education. A bad fit might get you a nice school tie from the “right” school. You can look good standing on the unemployment line. Families beware: if you can’t pick your dog food out of a magazine, what makes you think you can pick a college this way?

Head on, apply directly to the forehead.

Dick Pratt is Dean of the School of Arts & Sciences at Clarkson University in Potsdam, NY.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

War and pestilence

War, famine, pestilence, and death – the four horsemen of the apocalypse – usually show up on college campuses as the football season winds down. The memory of Grantland Rice and 1924 Notre Dame football get mixed with revelations about the current powerhouse. No more. War and pestilence are at home in colleges across the nation.

Colleges are at war with each other over amenities. From fast food chains to fitness centers, college students are seeing perks once not available at exclusive country clubs. So, strike famine from the list, but the amenity wars go on. The most recent example of amenities on maximum is the climbing wall. Now, the linkage between physical fitness and mental acuity has been well-known for centuries (at college, we always say “since Aristotle”). But colleges are blowing the doors off. Climbing walls, mobile climbing walls, tuned up fitness centers with elliptical trainers coupled to Calorie counters, heart monitors, personal fitness advisers, and yoga classes. Add to these the lap pools, saunas, and spas found on most college campuses.

This may not seem like intercollegiate warfare, but every college competing for the best bright and ambitious students is in a consumer war. While major colleges and universities use part-time faculty and graduate teaching assistants to get through the basics, they have full-time attention on wireless networks, bundled cable TV and internet service in dorms, and dorms that are no longer dorms. Dorms have become cluster apartments and townhouses. Don’t forget the contracts for access to file sharing networks.

All of these amenities cost money, and while every college has a desperate need to continually update facilities, the cost of amenities is nearly out of control. Students on many campuses tax themselves (often with 10% annual escalations) to afford amenities once out of reach. Everyone loves the amenities offered to students – everyone except librarians and information technology officers and senior college administrators wondering how to balance the costs of attracting students with the need to actually offer instruction, keep books and journals in the library, and maintain campus technology. Increasingly, colleges are sacrificing the soldiers of the education battle – faculty – to the competition over amenities.

College education is becoming more expensive, and most of the growth in college spending has little to do with the cost of the basic educational enterprise. Sacrifices need to be made to do battle with the competition’s hot tubs, free weights, and putting greens. Better to keep students healthy if not wise.

While intercollegiate warfare is savaging student affairs budgets, even more attention is being directed to fighting the pestilence of college drinking. College students have been testing both their independence and their alcoholic fortitude for decades. Have they been downing 20 shots of hard liquor during their first month of college? How long have they been having a few drinks before going to a party where alcohol will be served?

Dealing with the alcohol pandemic has left college officials drawn, demoralized, and dazed. As they ready their crisis communication plans to deal with alcohol poisonings and felony arrests, parents are stocking liquor cabinets for underage drinkers (really). People in charge of student behavior are certain they are failing. But are they?

Time was when parents could say no to more than drugs or college students were more concerned about their reputations (or even not getting arrested) than their count of shot glasses. Time was when fake identification was a prank – today it’s a security threat. Time was when students got expelled for violating rules and breaking laws. And, yes, time was when the drinking age was lower, like it is in every other developed country except the US.

The pestilence of alcohol is real but scarcely restricted to colleges. In fact, the pestilence of alcohol and its accompanying head injuries, DWI convictions, domestic violence, vomiting, and hangovers is possibly more common off campus than on campus, even though the most stupendous examples of poor judgment and irresponsible bravado seem close to campuses.

College students of all ages (legal and not) drink alcohol (some are remarkably abstinent). But those who do drink occasionally create remarkably dumb examples. First-year students drinking (more than three or four drinks) know little about the capacity of alcohol to debilitate reasoning. Students drinking 10 shots of hard liquor don’t want to get drunk – they want to be hospitalized. They same goes for high school kids and for young adults. No one should be drinking more than one drink an hour. The penalties are complex and one step less than death.

Parents can help this situation. First, they can ask questions but, better yet, they can set a standard by talking about limits. Second, parents can help younger students understand how much is too much. Third, parents can, through regular contact, remind students who the grown-ups are. Time for parents to just say “don’t” and, preferably to send this message weekly until it sinks in. Parents can help students just say no to illegal and excessive alcohol consumption, but they will need to exercise their help often.

Dick Pratt is Dean of the School of Arts & Sciences at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York