kaiyen: pepper

the life and times of Allan Chen

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CalArts VP-IT: 1 Year In

Yesterday, November 23, 2021, marked my 1 year work anniversary here at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), here in southern California (Valencia, to be specific). I’ve observed a lot in this time, many things about CalArts uniquely, and many about art (and design) institutes, more generally. And, of course, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about myself, my leadership style, and my growth over the past year.

First and foremost, I love it here. It’s been a wild ride, but I work with a great team in IT, am part of an amazing leadership group, and work for a fantastic president, Ravi Rajan, that is supportive and understands technology and its role in higher education success. When we meet (any of the aforementioned groups), we make decisions, we address issues realistically, and we just flat out get stuff done. The faculty are tremendous and exciting to work with, the Deans all get it, and the staff are top rate. Everyone cares about success. I had a personal situation which would have forced me to fly back and forth to northern California each week. My absolute first reactions were “I want to be here” and “I still have work to do.” I never actually considered leaving.

CalArts is a unique place. Truthfully, I find every higher education institution unique in their own way(s). But CalArts is even more unique (yes, I know uniqueness is a binary trait, but I’ll bend the rules a bit nevertheless) than most places, in my estimation and experience. CalArts is still a maturing organization in many ways. We have done things “as they come up” for some time. It is not a disorganized place, but process and procedure remain conceptual rather than actual in many ways, and the place is ripe for business process improvement. Even compared to other institutions in the same vein and of the same age, we have a few challenges. CalArts also has a different structure than most places. Despite being small (1424 FTE), we have 6 fairly independent schools (Art, Critical Studies, Dance, Film/Video, Music, and Theater). There is a “collaborative friction” between the schools’ long-standing independence and the centralized services such as IT. We work together and we have common goals, but there is some tension there that is not to be ignored.

CalArts is an art institute, which presents challenges that are different than other institutions. Some of these are high level – the faculty and students are just wildly creative across the board. At most institutions, maybe 10% of faculty are the “wild” ones with the ideas that challenge centralized organizations such as IT. At an art institute, 100% of faculty fall into this category. And the students follow along in terms of the challenges they present with their ideas and questions. Consequently, many staff that support these individuals can push us as well. Sometimes it’s quite a direct connection – staff X is supporting faculty doing creative work, and they must be just as inventive (and understandably demanding) in getting the resources they need. In other cases its a by-product – student affairs (what we call Student Experience at CalArts) exists within a culture where students won’t wear shoes on a regular basis. So how do we get them to wear ID cards on lanyards as evidence they have been vaccinated? It’s not that Student Experience is supporting the students in their iconoclast nature. It’s the reality of the population they serve. I would suspect that other art and design institutes face similar challenges.

Another, much more “in the weeds” example for IT is the annual computer refresh. I have done this everywhere I’ve been before, and it’s usually pretty straightforward. Prep new machine, centralized documents on old machine, move documents to new machine, install new machine. Voila. At an art institute, however, faculty might have filled their hard drive to the brim with media files, and might have 20 truly specialized software about which we could never know enough to properly support. Sometimes we can’t even figure out how to install and configure the license. But we don’t want to give out administrator-level rights to users, and we find ourselves in a dilemma. How do we handle this efficiently (we’re working on it and perhaps a topic for a future blog post)?

Finally, what about me? What have I learned, in general and about myself?

First, a small institution is a small institution is a small institution. Truth be told, I haven’t run into that many surprises at CalArts compared to other smaller schools I’ve been at. Sure, we have more deferred maintenance on our older building than at Muhlenberg, but it’s about the same as at Menlo. We don’t have the buying power of a larger institution nor the weight to throw around like at a Cal State institution, but that’s nothing new from the smaller schools I’ve been at in the past. We are more selective than other places I’ve been at in the past, and we have a higher profile in many of our metiers. This means that while one company might not want to play ball, another might.

Second, I am finding myself a lot more comfortable in my role. Not complacent nor am I forgetting to challenge the status quo, etc. And I get the jitters now and then and imposter syndrome is always lurking. But, for the most part, when something comes up, I’ve seen something at least somewhat similar in my past, and I can reflect on that experience as I go through the decision-making process on the new one. I might make the same decision, the polar opposite, or something in between. But I have learned, and I think I’ve grown as a leader. For example, we are working on a strategic plan. The last time I tried to do this, I simply bit off more than I could chew; I was too ambitious and tried to write the greatest plan ever. This time, I’m really focused in on one theme, and zeroing in on how we can make an impact within those boundaries.

On the one hand, it’s only been a year. You can lay the groundwork for things in that time, but it’s hard to have everything achieve lift-off. On the other, we have accomplished a lot in this time, and I look forward to what we can do over the next 12 months.

Being a Better Ally (but sometimes failing)

I struggled with the title to this post. It’s too generic and almost seems purposely attention-getting. But it’s also on point, as you will hopefully see. I’d also like to say that I have struggled with writing this for a while now, because it’s a sensitive topic, I’m not an expert on it, and because, well, maybe I’m just wrong in what I’m saying. For all I know what I think I should have done in the situation outlined below is still wrong and I’m still unintentionally supporting some “bad” thing or another.

I’m currently reading Better Allies (yes, I’m at least a year behind on my reading, though I have been getting the weekly newsletter for a while), which is both a book (2, actually) and a movement, and am thinking about a difficult past experience I had. I’ve been debating whether I was trying too hard to be a Knight, an Ally, or just messed up at both, regardless. Either way, the intention was sound, but execution almost certainly not.

My point in this post is, first, to express a relatively recent (within the last 5 years) struggle to be a better Ally and Upstander (see first point in this Code Like a Girl page). My second argument is that it’s just plain hard to know how to be a good ally sometimes, even when we are faced with what seems like blatant actions and words. If anything, I would argue that the examples in the Better Allies book of inappropriate jokes and micro-aggressive discrimination by race are far easier to handle because they are small (but significant) situations. I’m not sure if things are usually more complex in the “real world,” (I use quotes because Better Allies is very much “real” in its examples) but I sure struggled with this one, and for all my good intentions and intentional actions…I did not handle it well.

The not-so-short story is that our IT department decided to do a campus survey – using both a survey instrument and just talking with people – about how we were doing. As an organization operationally (were we doing our jobs), as part of the community (were we being good neighbors), and as a contributor to the culture of the institution (were we being good listeners, supporters, and change-agents towards a positive work place). However, as we gathered this information, we started getting some concerning feedback. We were being told that IT supported a masculine environment that was not friendly to women, for example. Some more extreme examples included that we were blatantly sexist and discriminatory in our departmental culture to other departments.

Not surprisingly, this worried me and the department leadership team. One Director was even brought to tears at the thought that he or his teammates were contributing in such a negative way to a community that he valued so deeply. I expressed that we probably needed to do something, and went home to a restless night.

In what I see now as trying too hard to be a Knight, I acted “decisively” the next day and called a team-wide meeting (I used to call them “all-hands” meetings but now know that that is a term that is not inclusive). I expressed firmly to everyone that these kinds of behaviors and the culture they propagated were anathema to my expectations, and that “that’s not how we do things here.” I used words that were tough to say (because I’m more of a “servant leader” – quite the hot term these days – than a top-down one and tend to choose my words accordingly) and difficult for others to hear. To make things worse, I did this basically right before Thanksgiving break. Which was just plain old bad timing and kind of stupid (I won’t even say bad practice or poor leadership or anything. It was dumb and insensitive).

I say that I was being a Knight rather than an Ally because it was only later (though at least right after the all-team meeting) that I offered to meet with everyone individually and to express more deeply my desire to erase these kinds of cultural contributions at a systemic level. I was trying so hard to be action-oriented and make an immediate difference that I didn’t think about how to make a deeper, lasting one. So I failed there.

What happened next, as I dug deeper into the situation, was where things both got interesting, and embarrassing. As we looked closer at he comments, we discovered that he specific words being used were not as damning as I had feared. They pointed at things we could do better, but there were not, in fact, any specific examples of us being discriminatory to the point where should have acted as I did, with the immediate calling of a meeting and drawing a line in the sand. I want to emphasize that again, because I don’t want to diminish the fact that legitimate complaints were being made. But we didn’t have a smoking gun here. Which leads me to my second failure.

My second mistake was that I was too quick to bold action. If I had simply but emphatically said in IT leadership that this wasn’t okay and that the directors should spread that message to their teams as per their individual cultural norms, that’s one thing. I could have made that my first move. If I had waited until after the break, that would have been more sensitive, certainly. But if I had simply waited in general, I would have realized that I was trying too hard and over-reacting. I had gotten the information somewhat second-hand, after all – people looking at and somewhat interpreting surveys of what others said. But I reacted like I had just been handed what looked like a bomb and had simply and hastily thrown it back from whence it came without taking a second glance.

Again, my point is not that Better Allies is misleading in presenting what I feel are more clear cut examples. If they were in fact clear cut then they wouldn’t happen nearly as often because those wishing to be good Allies would catch them all the time. Micro-aggressions and discrimination by all manner of aspects happen all the time, without question, and they should be called out. I am writing this because it’s an example of how I, personally, struggled, despite my goal to be a good Ally, and it’s an example that I chose to share, even if it makes me look stupid or anything else.

Maybe I was in fact right to have tackled the problem head on (don’t let it slide, right, even if it was Thanksgiving break coming up). Maybe sentiments expressed even mildly should be taken as if they were a bomb dropped in my lap, because those kinds of concerns and actions, whether big or small, should be treated the same.

I write this post because, even though I try so hard, even though I read the books, even though I get the newsletter(s)…I still struggle. I still get things wrong. And I still think about it every time I’m asked to make a decision on almost any issue of any kind today. But I will keep trying to be an Ally and Upstander. I will keep reading and refining. And, surely, I will keep making mistakes now and then.

Digital Transformation vs. Transition

During a recent presentation about the mass transition to Zoom/online-based classes in Spring 2020, the term “digital transformation” was thrown around. Now, admittedly, it was a very short presentation – 20 minutes – and encompassed the experiences of 3 institutions/systems to boot. So the presenters did not dig deep. But the clear implication by some was that by going online, teaching (and learning) was transformed. There were comments about how the intense crucible (my words) of switching to online in the spring necessitated transformation.

I…don’t know how I feel about this. First, transformation is thrown around in a lot of industries, and higher education is no exception. Second, transformation is about changing how you go about doing your work, not just morphing it from one form to another. As someone working with faculty (I am one step removed, however, from direct interaction), I regularly see and hear about courses that were airlifted from in-person design to virtual settings. Little to nothing was changed in the course. Lectures stayed the same, grading methods did not change, and engagement tools were not put in place above and beyond a discussion forum in Canvas or something similar. I would argue that this is not digital transformation. It was not the crucible of pressure changing the way we teach. It was just teaching the same material and using the same methods but in a different format.

Similarly, our work hasn’t necessarily changed that much. We still have meetings like we did; they’re just online. We still communicate generally as we did; we just do more email. Etc. If anything, we’ve regressed a bit. We used to be able to have “water cooler” chats or just walk down the hall for a quick question. Those 10 minute chats have become 30 minute (because that’s the standard shortest length in Outlook) meetings with agendas. One exception has been the digitization of forms on campus – in many cases, a business process efficiency discussion takes place about the form, and a new methodology is born. But even in those cases sometimes it’s just taking a paper form and making it electronic. That’s not transformation.

I would argue that this is digital transitioning. It is taking what you’ve done before and just moving it into a different form or delivery method. It is not fundamentally changing the way one goes about doing work.

Now, please bear in mind that I am not criticizing faculty at all, even though it sounds like I am. Even just switching to a new environment is incredibly difficult and challenging, and I am not one to speak as to whether it is possible to transform on any timeline, much less the one under which we operated, both in spring and over the summer. I am not faculty, nor do I teach a course in my current capacity. I actually have no problem, per se, with a digital transition. I have a problem with calling it digital transformation.

The “heat of battle” does not create transformation. The pressure to go online in the spring and now in the fall does not mean transformation, and stats as to whether we are or are not using Zoom do not support (nor dispel) this notion. The stats in particular are neutral. They are what they are; nothing more, nothing less.

This long preamble leads to a set of simple closing comments. Digital transition is…painful but not complex. Digital transformation is incredibly difficult. But is also incredibly crucial. How should we change the way we work from yesterday to today’s world (trying not to say “new normal” here, because there is nothing normal about it)? How should we morph our processes? What new kinds of emotional intelligence are required of us, as leaders, under these conditions, when the most we can do is show a headshot of ourselves in a Zoom box or send an email to express that concern and sensitivity? I don’t have even my own answers to these (yet? – check back with me later). But I do believe there is a difference between digital transition and transformation, and that we need to be looking deeply within ourselves and our organizations for the latter, and not getting caught up in the hype of the former.

From CIO to AVP: 6 Months Into a Non-Lateral Move

In September of 2019, I started as the Associate Vice President for Academic Technology at Cal State Northridge (CSUN). In this role, I’m responsible for a bit of a mix of areas, but they include instructional technology, accessibility, data & analytics, and user support services (help desk and classroom support). My previous 2 jobs had been as a Chief Information Officer, in charge of all of IT. Even the job before that, I was essentially the CIO of a law school. So I’ve had the full portfolio under my purview in the past. This was a significant non-lateral move for me. I’m 6 months in now.

I was very purposeful in this transition away from the CIO role. Yes, I had worked hard to get to be a CIO. But I wanted to get back to the west coast, and a lot of major opportunities are at large state institutions. Certainly, the majority of small liberal arts colleges are on the east coast. But I didn’t have a background at other kinds of institutions, much less large public ones specifically. And obviously becoming a CIO at a 35,000 student institution from a 2,200 student one wasn’t going to happen. So I made an intentional move from CIO to AVP.

It’s been…interesting, in a lot of ways.

First, over the years, my management style had evolved into a very hands off one. This felt a necessity as a CIO. I’m still an AVP (there are two AVPs in IT here at CSUN) so it’s not as if I’m in the weeds everyday, but I am more involved in daily operations on a personal level than I was before. I delegated a lot as a CIO. Maybe that was just my style, or was the culture of the institution. Maybe others in the same jobs would have been more involved. Maybe my style was even “wrong.” Whatever the reason, my style has become what it is, and I find myself questioning whether it is 100% appropriate here at CSUN. I will say that there is a bit more of a culture of involvement and hands-on management here at CSUN, from what I’ve been able to discern. In all honesty, I’m not 100% sure how to modify my style just yet.

Second, I’ve been reminded that my place in the department is different than before, in completely respectful and proper ways. I’m not in charge. I’m also not acting as if I am, but I have sent off a few messages bringing up matters that might be of higher-level concern, and been told, again in a respectful way, that that’s the purview of someone else and that that’s the end of the conversation. There was a security issue, for instance, where I suggested to the interim CIO that we might want to act more aggressively than was indicated by others. I was told that’s someone else’s call.

That’s perfectly fine, of course. But it didn’t end my unease about the decision, to be honest. But…it’s not my call. So I just swallowed the pill and moved on.

Third, and this is the positive one, I can really focus in on key things that I care a lot about. I have at least some experience with each of the areas I lead/manage, and extensive knowledge in some of them. I can really dig in and sink my teeth into the issues they are facing, and have in-depth conversations about solutions. This was not always the case as a CIO, where the breadth of responsibilities was much broader. I was weak in some areas. I was very open about it, and asked lots of questions so that I could make sound decisions, but I was never going to become a networking expert or be able to do ETLs from a SQL database.

So I’m 6 months in, and the obvious question is “what next?” What will I do next to be a more effective manager and leader? How do I keep moving forward?

I think the first thing is to take a hard look at my management style. One of my directors is still new and getting up to speed so I’m working a lot with her, but overall I need to decide if I want to be more hands-on with decisions and strategy. There is definitely a craving for certain things from various people in the group, and because it is a more focused team I need to recognize that I need to respond to those needs in a different (and faster) way than I might have in the past. I need to be less contemplative (though no less intentional and careful, of course). I also need to adjust my communication styles. CSUN is very email averse, it seems. If I were CIO, I could change that culture, at least in the division (not that I want to, just saying I could). But that’s not the situation now. I need to meet more often with people (I’m doing a lot more walking now). Please know that I wasn’t “Mr. Email” before, but the sentiment against sending a lot of messages is quite strong here.

Those are just my initial thoughts. Still cogitating.

A Month on Safari

This post is about photography, a break from my usual (but infrequent) professional missives.

Back in October, I was fortunate enough to go on a 3 week vacation through Africa. It was an amazing experience, to say the least. We covered 6 countries (South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda) across 19 days.

First lion we saw on the trip

Before going, I did a ton of research on cameras, lenses, how to get around weight restrictions (33 lbs, including carry-on), etc. I asked a lot of people about what they recommended. Some suggested renting big honking lenses like a 400 2.8 and cropping or a zoom like a 200-500 5.6 (which is 5 lbs all by itself). Many strongly recommended renting the latest and greatest cameras, such as the Nikon D850, with it’s 47MP of resolution. For the most part, I got lots of recommendations for the fastest lens from Nikon only or the highest resolution that I could get. I didn’t get a lot of compromise.

In the end, I decided on a less expensive and lighter (4lb) zoom lens but with more reach – the Sigma 150-600 5.6-6.3 – and sticking with my own Nikon D600 (24MP) with an additional rented D610 (which is basically the same camera but with a new shutter mechanism). I had a 24-120 4 on the D610 that my wife, who excels at landscapes, primarily used.

I learned a lot of interesting things while photographing. First, every millimeter counted. I was almost always shooting at 600mm, and even then when I was post-processing I still had to crop. The first image, of the lion in the brush, is cropped quite a bit to bring him to the center of attention. I was zoomed in similarly on the following few images. And, again, lots of cropping.

Having a lighter weight lens was a big deal, and you don’t have to buy only name brand. It might be only 1lb, but I had heard that the 200-500 was quite heavy. The close up of the lion below was handheld, and I took a lot of photos of him (meaning I was tiring out my arms as it was). Plus, even at the slow end, the 150-600 was only a 1/3 of a stop difference, and I’ve already mentioned the point about needing that last 100mm, so it was a good trade-off I thought. Both lenses had high speed focus and vibration control. And the Sigma was very sharp. as you can see from both the lion and elephant pics below. I didn’t need a Nikon lens, which was hundreds of dollars more, to get great results. It’s a reminder that Sigma, and Tamron and Tokina for that matter, can make great lenses.

I also learned that there is something to be said about being really familiar with your camera. I knew my D600, and all the controls on the D610 were the same. Yes, I could have learned the D850 and had almost double the MP to work with, but my wife, who is a tremendous photographer but isn’t technically inclined, might have struggled a bit if I wasn’t there to help, on a camera I knew already and could adjust quickly.

Also, there is nothing “wrong” with my D600. It’s not as if it’s lost resolution in the 7 years I’ve had it (24MP then is 24MP today, as far as resolution goes, for the most part). It’s not as if it’s worse in low light/at high ISO (a necessity with a slower lens when we were doing game drives towards dusk). Yes, I could have cropped more with a D850, and that might be the one thing I wish I had changed, but I”m still 99% happy with the results I got with the D600. And I admit that I’m ecstatic as the results even with cropping. 24MP is still a lot of resolution, even today, in the world of newly-announced 61MP cameras.

My favorite photo? That’s the one of the leopard at sunset below. It’s shot on a 7 year old, 24MP camera, with a third-party, “slow” lens at maximum focal length, and at ISO 3200. And I think it’s beautiful.

Full gallery is on flickr.

The Higher Ed Domino Effect

A recent article in the Chronicle about various attempts to measure the possibility of failure of private institutions had me thinking about things in a slightly broader perspective. The article itself was about a “Doomsday list” (as they described it) from a company that used a bunch of publicly-available data to say which schools were in financial trouble. Obviously this stirred up a huge amount of controversy, including threats of legal action against the company from named schools. The data eventually was not released.

But, in a broader sense…having worked at a small, liberal-arts college in the northeast, facing stiff headwinds of changing demographics and the realities of discount rates and admission pools, I started thinking about the domino effect of failed schools. Muhlenberg College is actually in a very strong position – it’s not a top 50 school, and it’s certainly not Bates or Williams or Amherst – but it has a solid endowment and an excellent reputation on a regional scale and a notable one on a national scale. It’s in a relatively healthy situation. But the fact is that there are a lot of institutions in that geographic and demographic area competing for the same students. Many of them are in fact in worse financial situation (at least on the surface, using the same partial-story-telling metrics like admit rates, discount rates, endowment size, etc.). This post isn’t really about Muhlenberg. It’s about the large number of schools like Muhlenberg.

Let’s look at discount rates. While it’s scary to think of an institution at 65%+ discount rates and it’s hard to imagine such measures being sustainable, the fact is that if an institution is discounting that much, that means they are offering a huge amount of aid to prospective students. This pulls students to those institutions, in these days of incredibly high tuition, and away from other, arguably more stable institutions. Rankings don’t matter if the first financial aid offer is 65% of sticker. The more stable institutions begin to face more and more pressure to meet class size, and then they suffer. The only ones left that are having a good old time are probably the top 25 schools (not even 50 is good enough) and that small handful of truly elite institutions.

But 65% isn’t sustainable. That’s just a slipper slope to higher and higher discount rates to make class size. We know that. So the healthier-but-not-affluent mid-level schools end up in a waiting game for the less healthy institutions to inevitably crack under the pressure. Then the competitive landscape changes, and there is less pressure for recruitment and making classes. It’s a terrible thing to think of – waiting for competitors to fold – but it’s the truth, as far as I can see.

I have no great conclusion to this post or line of thought. It’s just a sad reality right now. Can mid-level schools hang on long enough? Is the writing really on the wall for those schools with high admit and discount rates (and other metrics)? And most of us know that the writing is not bold enough yet to know when the dominos really will begin to fall.

The Latest from Moody’s – TL/DR – Not So Good

Moody’s released their higher education credit outlook report (IHE article, too) yesterday. This is the second year in a row that it’s been a negative rating (used to be “stable”). I found a few interesting points in the report. A quick summary is that low net-tuition revenue growth continues to make for a bleak forecast, and that expenses should outpace that revenue, to boot. We’d have to get to a 3% increase in revenue to get level again, and to get to a stable rating. Privates are forecast to be a bit better off than state schools. The full report, which is for subscribers only, is a lot more illuminating, but I’ll reference information in the linked article only.

Labor remains the biggest cost for higher education institutions, up to 75% of total expenses. A professor at U Wisconsin Madison says that it’s just the “nature of the beast” that it takes a lot of staff and faculty to run a higher education institution. This is completely true, and Baumol’s Cost Disease speaks to the fact that economies of scale are extremely difficult in labor-intensive industries such as higher education (massive oversimplication). If you want an 11:1 student to faculty ratio, you have to hire enough faculty to achieve that result. Faculty salaries go up. Labor expenses go up. There is no way to use scale that doesn’t erode that student to faculty ratio. It’s like trying to make a musical quintet more efficient in labor. You can’t have a 5 piece band with 4 people.

If this truly is the “nature of the beast” then we need to be asking some hard questions about our business model. I don’t mean that in the “higher ed should be run like a business” kind of way – just how we get things done. None of these questions are all that new – different channels for delivery (online), for instance.

There is another part about how colleges and universities are expected to “control those costs in the coming year.” This is about cost containment. Or, in most cases, cutting costs. But that’s a simplistic analysis, too. What if you’ve already cut things to the bone? What if there are few remaining efficiencies to be gained? At this point, I’m slicing a few thousand dollars off our phone bill and calling that a win (there are loads of other places here at the College where we can save money. I’m not the only one trying to contain costs and I’m not saying that all costs have been trimmed. We are not perfect. My point is that this isn’t a winning strategy forever).

It’s an interesting time in higher education, to be sure. Certainly reports such as Moody’s cast a negative forecast on things, but there are a lot of exciting and positive things happening, too. How we react to the forces identified in reports like these will partially determine where we – as an “industry” and as individual institutions – will find ourselves in the coming years.


Higher Education – if not a business, then what?

Use the phrase “higher education should be run like a business” and you’ll usually get polar-opposite responses from a wide range of people. One CIO might agree while another runs at you with a pitchfork or torch. Some presidents may feel sympathy for the argument, while others will take a completely opposite stance. In other words, it’s not as if one group of individuals (like CIOs) agree while others (like presidents) don’t. You get the bi-polar set of reactions everywhere.

Even what one means can be controversial. Do you mean all of higher education? Including the academic side? In which case you probably (but not definitely) mean teaching at scale (large lectures or even MOOC-style ones), accessing new channels (online), and perhaps even modifications to curriculum. Or do you mean the administrative side? In which case you’re talking about business operations. Of course, it’s not a clean separation. What about a business analysis of the output from academic departments? Many institutions (I’ll find some links later) have been cancelling majors due to low numbers of graduates, meaning that the major is not producing the “ROI” that the institution expects. I usually interpret that investment as in the form of the faculty paid to run that program, but I  might be narrow-minded on that.

For me, I generally mean business operations whenever I ponder this phrase. I am not sold that it should be run like a business. We are an educational institution, with service providers and “consumers” (I mean that literally, and not as akin to “customers.” I mean people that consume the service we provide) that are focused on education and the growth of young adults and adult learners. But then I look at how I spend my days trying to do “cost containment” (ie – cutting expenses) on things such as phone bills and internet service, or getting bids on projects, and it sure does feel like a business sometimes.

So my question is – if not to be run like a business, how is an institution to be run, on the administrative side? What is the framework or model that one would prefer to use? And can you articulate that framework?

my own fail: EDUCAUSE Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Task Force

I have had a strange experience as part of the EDUCAUSE Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Task Force over the past 6 or so months. I was honored to be a part of this group and to be working on this important topic. The group was convened by John O’Brien, EDUCAUSE President, to tackle the issues of increasing DEI in higher education IT in general and at EDUCAUSE specifically. How do we make our work force more diverse, our leadership more representative of at least industry norms (higher ed IT lags behind even corporate IT in diversity, on several dimensions, much less against the population at large), and be more inclusive once we develop greater diversity? Wow, such an important topic.

For some reason, though…I found myself paralyzed as I tried to contribute. It wasn’t the people – many were friends of mine, and all were very accessible and engaged. I didn’t feel intimidated by them. It wasn’t the leadership – John and Joanne Dehoney (also from EDUCAUSE) were great, too, and both asked engaging questions as well as gladly accepted feedback. I just couldn’t…find a nook or cranny from which I felt comfortable contributing. For some reason I just couldn’t contribute! I was holding back on ideas and thoughts, for instance, or drawing a blank when I should have been inspired to new ideas.

It was all very surreal. And infuriating because the topic is so important.

So. The real question is what have I learned from this?

First, I need to critically evaluate how I can contribute before I agree to participate. I was so excited to be invited and included that I jumped in before I put in thought as to what I could offer. It’s not that I would have said “no” – it’s that I needed a game plan, from my perspective and of my opinions, of how I would take part. If I’m going to be part of something this important, I have to know that I will pull my weight.

Second, I need to be willing to be bold. There were times when I found that I didn’t speak up when I should have for some reason. There were even a couple of times that I didn’t say something that, later on, someone else did to much appreciation. I have no idea why I froze like that. But I did. I need to be willing to just say it and see what happens.

Finally, I think I need to accept that I have good ideas. This is related to item 2 but deserves it’s own spotlight. I might not have great ideas and I might have a dud now and then, but I cannot let the concern (fear?) of a dud prevent me from saying what might be a good suggestion. We all have both good and bad ideas. We’re allowed to have them if the point is brainstorming and sharing.

boosting retention vs. invasion of privacy

In a recent article, the Chronicle of Higher Education covered a product from Degree Analytics that looks at a lot of “big data” – specifically WiFi location activity – to aid in student retention. The article is also about the privacy concerns when one starts digging into such data. Just because most if not all systems at least passively collect location data on WiFi networks doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to be using that information. Students haven’t specifically given permission to have their data accessed that way. I’m willing to bet a lot of money, too, that they aren’t aware that their movements could lead to such analysis that somehow “predicts” their success at the institution.

I’m not going to get into Degree Analytics specifically. I will admit, though, that we gave them a legitimate look here at Muhlenberg. And that I was pretty torn about the matter of boosting retention vs. a potential invasion of privacy.

I realize that this post will get a few up in arms, including some that I consider close colleagues and even friends. I would expect that to be the case, though, considering the topic. Certainly there were some here at Muhlenberg that were up in arms at the mere notion of using data this way. But we did take a look; this is a polarizing topic to say the least.

But here’s my take, and my conflict.

Retention is a big issue today. The connection to student academic success is obvious (though there are many, many other aspects to “success” than just academics). There’s the altruistic aspect to this – we want students to succeed because it’s the right thing to want and pursue. That’s far and away the bigger side of the issue, and I won’t belabor why that is so important. But there’s also a business side to this, all the more important considering today’s higher education climate – every student we retain from year X to X+1 is a multitude fewer we have to enroll as a first-year, provides revenue at a lower discount rate (presuming discount rate goes up with each class, as it generally does), and improves our graduation rate (which affects rankings).

So if we can retain even one more student for all the above reasons, altruistic and business…is that bad? Is it even…good? Good enough? How much is enough to justify using data however we want?

Let’s look at the other side of the coin, which is a doozy. First, students don’t realize that this kind of data on campus whereabouts based on WiFi connections is even collected. They certainly wouldn’t think we’d use it to literally track them, then draw conclusions about their “success” and intervene when we fear that “success” is in jeopardy. Second, just because we collect something doesn’t mean we should use it at all, much less in this way. By the way – at Muhlenberg at least we don’t “monitor” people through whatever data we do collect. Yes, our WiFi logs go back 90 days (but not farther, for any reason whatsoever), but we don’t comb through them pro-actively. We only use them if we get a DMCA complaint and we have to figure out who was connected to what IP address at a particular time. But that’s pretty darn specific. Degree Analytics is very, very broad.

So this is a pretty big invasion of privacy. A massive one, to many.

We didn’t do Degree Analytics here, but probably 30/70 cost vs. privacy. It wasn’t all privacy concerns. And I was among those torn about it. Because we do have to worry about retention. And maybe, just maybe, this is a way to improve and get all the benefits, to us and students, that better retention entails. But it’s a dangerous path that we’d be starting down, without question.