Monday, July 30, 2012

The American Dream

For many years, beginning when I was in college, I went to a dentist whose office was within two blocks of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). Whenever the opportunity presented itself, I would also stop at Chock full o'Nuts next door for a brownie. (For those of you who have never heard of this chain, consider it a more vanilla Starbucks.) And if I had extra time, I would spend some time at the MOMA. I won't say that this made visiting a dentist pleasurable but I always enjoyed the time spent at the MOMA.

Many years later, I still enjoy spending time at the MOMA. Yesterday was such an opportunity. My younger daughter and I were in New York City for the day and after lunch we stopped by the museum. In all the previous visits to the museum, rarely have modern art and economics crossed paths (unless you consider the $ value of some of the art) but yesterday we saw a very dynamic exhibit entitled "Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream." As you enter this exhibit, you pass by a map of the United States that shows foreclosures by state with different colors representing the different percentages of foreclosure. Clearly, as is visible and as we all know, we have a serious foreclosure problem prompted by a serious recession (and lackluster recovery) with housing and mortgages as a cause and also a victim.

As noted on the museum website:
Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream is an exploration of new architectural possibilities for cities and suburbs in the aftermath of the recent foreclosure crisis. During the summer of 2011, five interdisciplinary teams of architects, urban planners, ecologists, engineers, and landscape designers worked in public workshops at MOMA PS 1 to envision new housing and transportation infrastructures that could catalyze urban transportation, particularly in the country's suburbs.
This effort was in response to a report prepared by the Buell Center at Columbia University and the end products were a series of inventive solutions to the issues confronting our suburbs with specific recommendations for five important suburbs across the country. Now why did this exhibit fascinate my 11 year old daughter? The answer is not that she has studied these issues in 5th grade nor is it that I have spent time with her talking about foreclosures. The answer is that the exhibit included "a wide array of models, renderings, animations, and analytical materials" that captured her attention and her interest.

Very often disciplines divide serious issues, which are then studied in one silo when the problem and the solution transcend many silos and disciplines. As the exhibit clearly demonstrates, we can "rehouse the American dream" but certainly not by doing the same old things in the same old ways. See the exhibit before it closes on August 13th or pick up the book which has the same title. Economics and architecture never looked better together.

Monday, July 23, 2012

“Flipped Classroom”

I am optimistic that the “Flipped Classroom” learning strategy has the potential to enhance learning.  The actual class material is presented on-line and then the classroom becomes a setting for questions and in-depth analysis and discussion that builds on the on-line lesson.  I know that this learning strategy is presented as the newest approach to learning.  It may be very effective but in reality it builds on what has been in place for many many years.  When I was an undergraduate and also when I was a doctoral student, it wasn’t that unusual for a faculty member to assign material to be covered and then assume, when the class next met, that the students had done their homework and were prepared to move on from that point.  And moving on often took the form of questions followed by an in-depth analysis and discussion.  There was no online education at that time and in fact there was no online but flipping was already in place.

Today, the “Flipped Classroom” is looked at with favor for three reasons.  First, the potential to enhance learning.  For serious students, it presents the opportunity to sit through the lesson more than once, or sit through parts of the lesson more than once, or skip parts of the lesson where the material is already familiar to them.  As a result of this, class time becomes more valuable.  Second it is a high tech blended approach to education which may be a best practice for online learning.   And third, and perhaps this is the elephant in the room, there is the promise of cost savings at a time when virtually all of higher education is constrained and cost savings are enormously helpful.

But the cost savings may be more imaginary than real depending on what you are looking for the education to accomplish.  The more you expect education to accomplish and the more personal the educational experience, the lower the actual savings (if any) will be. For example, if the faculty member involved in preparing the class material and the faculty member meeting with the class for questions, projects, analysis and discussion is one and the same and if the class size remains unchanged, there will be no savings in moving from in-person to blended. There are still variables that can result in savings: an adjunct faculty member in place of a full-time faculty member, or a larger class in place of a smaller class.  At the other cost extreme, you can have students take the free online courses now offered by a number of Ivy League schools and couple that experience which would count as the lesson with a classroom experience that covers questions, analysis, greater depth, etc., taught by graduate students or adjuncts at a significantly reduced cost.  Smaller class size and greater use of full-time faculty will increase the cost of this experience.

Finding savings in higher education is not that hard to do.  Showing consistency in test scores across these various options is also not that hard to demonstrate but test scores are not the full measure of the education received.  As we work to reduce costs, and I am not suggesting there is necessarily a choice, we pay a price.  Technology may help mitigate that price but, at least in the short run, will not be the magic bullet.  In life, in educational quality, and in dollars, we are always dealing with tradeoffs and as a result compromises.  What choices will we make?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Graduation Insights

In a typical year, I attend one Hofstra commencement ceremony in December and four during May.  The May commencement exercises have individual ceremonies for undergraduate, graduate, Law, and an Honors Convocation while the December ceremony has all of the above for midyear graduates.  Only one of our May ceremonies, the undergraduate ceremony, has been held outdoors regularly and for this year’s ceremony, the weather was perfect.  Not too hot, not too cold, nice breeze, not raining, no thunder and lightning.  For an outdoor ceremony, you could not have had better weather. And yet, within two weeks of this year’s ceremony we made a decision that going forward the undergraduate ceremony would be divided by colleges and schools into two separate ceremonies and would be held indoors in our comfortable air-conditioned arena. Why the change?  We were not satisfied with our rain plan which would have moved the entire undergraduate ceremony into our arena with very limited seating available for family members and friends of the graduates. For an occasion as important as graduation, limited seating, even only under adverse outdoor weather conditions, was not OK with us, and so the decision was made.

At this time of year, typically after attending  commencements, there is always a period of time when all of us tend to reflect on what worked well, what didn’t work well but still worked, and what didn’t work period.  This year, I attended not only the Hofstra commencements but also one elementary school, one middle school, and one high school commencement for my local school district.  What always works well and for me is an essential part of any meaningful commencement is that each graduate has his or her name read aloud, and each graduate has a chance to shake hands with the appropriate official from that school or college.  I know that this may not be possible in schools with very large graduating classes but in those cases there should be alternatives provided that include recognition by name and a meaningful handshake from the institution involved. 

Speeches being short also works well.  It is very rare for a graduate or that person’s friend or family to focus on much more than the graduate’s actual rite of passage.  For the most part, speeches seem to be some variation of I did it; see what I did and you too can do it; even if it is a lousy economy you can do it; while you do it, remember your loved ones; remember those less fortunate than you are; remember the importance of education; and by the way, you and your generation should save the world; as well as, in very rare cases, see what I did and don’t do it.   All important and meaningful messages but here especially the guideline of “be brief, be sincere, and be seated” serves the speaker and the audience very well.

Going back to outdoor ceremonies, be sure to provide drinking water to graduates and to the audience as well if at all possible.  Equally essential is that outdoor ceremonies, especially late in June, should be held early in the day. Late in the day on a hot humid day outdoors or in an unair-conditioned venue indoors, should be avoided if at all possible.

And going back to names at graduation for a moment, having sat through a total of eight ceremonies, I am compelled to report that of all the names that were read at all these ceremonies for all these graduates, there was not one Herman mentioned.  Almost any other first name you can think of was mentioned at least once.  Either I have a dinosaur of first names or I need to be invited to a commencement in Germany to truly see how vibrant a first name I have.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The June Unemployment Rate

The June unemployment rate staying at 8.2% is really not a surprise.  The economy is lackluster and the 80,000 jobs added, a number well below what would be necessary to reduce the unemployment rate, is all the economy is capable of generating.  Of greater concern and regardless of the November presidential /congressional election results, the economy will not quickly spring to life with a major decline in the unemployment rate. 

As I have noted previously, if you look at the economy at the state and local level, part of the reason for the lackluster economy becomes clear.  States and localities are still in the process of cutting back.  Whether it is caused by escalating pension and health care costs or by tax caps, the number of positions is declining and the concern about still more positions being eliminated is escalating. The immediate impact plus the natural caution regarding the future that accompanies situations like this are clearly a brake on economic recovery.
A much more interconnected economic world is also a brake at this moment on the US economy.  The economic situation in Greece and other European countries must lead to greater austerity measures in those countries and that certainly won’t help our exports.  Plus the continuing political instability in the Middle East also is potentially counterproductive to economic recovery.

And I haven’t even mentioned the tax increases that are already programmed to take effect on January 1. 2013.  If Congress and the White House don’t get their act together and resolve the tax increase and spending issues, we are headed with certainty for a much more serious economic crisis and a new recession; a recession that will take place long before we have fully recovered from the last recession.

For all of us in higher education, we clearly know the impact the economy has.  From endowment earnings, to fundraising, to the ability and willingness of our students and their families to pay tuition or take out loans, to government support, to placement statistics, we are vulnerable.  Since the recession of 2008, higher education has dealt with greater resource constraints.  I don’t think that we should expect any change in the short term in this constrained environment and I consider myself to be an economic optimist.

An out of the area colleague noted that he welcomed these difficult times because he is able to do more with less.  If that is the case, other than at the margin, this colleague is running an inefficient operation.  For almost all of us, fewer resources means we are able to do less.  That doesn’t mean we aren’t able to maintain quality in what we do.  But no one should underestimate how difficult this is, and everyone should remember that maintaining quality works best if there is continuing faculty and administration cooperation and collaboration.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Look in the Mirror

Over the years, I have served on many not-for-profit boards.  My first such experience was shortly after I graduated from the CUNY Graduate School.  I joined the alumni association and ultimately served a term as President.  Most members of this board were recent graduates which I don’t think is unusual. Many of us thoroughly enjoyed our graduate experience and joining the alumni association was both an opportunity to stay in touch and to give back.  Subsequent to that experience I joined a number of other boards, most of which relate to schools and education in general.  I also interact with boards in community, business, government, religious, and educational settings.  For the most part I am very impressed with those individuals who serve on boards.  The pro bono work involved is much needed and much appreciated.

Board members often get reviewed at the end of their term prior to an assessment being made as to whether the person should be reappointed to another term. The criteria of work, wisdom and wealth are very much alive and the proportions vary greatly among not-for-profit organizations.

What I have seen less often is a board reviewing itself and its overall record of accomplishment and assessment of what works, what doesn’t work, and what should happen next. And yet this assessment and this conversation can be particularly invaluable.

Why am I writing about this now? In my role as Vice President of my local school board, I have spent much of today reviewing and collating the individual assessments of my fellow board member and my assessment as well.  The Board does such an evaluation every year and I have now completed three such evaluations (including this one) and this is my first opportunity to collate the responses.  The extensive list of topics in this evaluation covers Board Relations, Superintendent Relations, Community Relations, Staff and Personnel Relations, the Instructional Program, Fiscal, and Goals.  Within those heading there are a significant number of specific topics covering all aspects of the Board’s responsibility.  Board members are requested to check the appropriate box and rate the Board on a scale of 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest).  Questions include “Board members are prepared for meetings,” “Board members always demonstrate the educational well being of children as the top priority,” “Board members arrive at meetings on time,” “Board members respect the confidentiality off executive sessions,”  “The Board provides an effective orientation program for new board members,” “All board members demonstrate an understanding of the existing body of policy,” “The board works and plans with the superintendent in a spirit of mutual respect, trust, confidence and cooperation,” “The board encourages community assistance at meetings,” “The board uses established procedures for staff complaints and suggestions to the board,” “The Board provides sufficient resources for independent evaluation of programs,” “The Board employs clear policies on sound fiscal management,” and “The board establishes clearly defined annual goals.”  I have probably listed only ten percent of the actual questions but it does give a clear idea of how in-depth this self-analysis is. And what follows the tabulations of the results is a board conversation, at our annual retreat, on our performance.

Looking at the individual responses from my colleagues on the board and compiling them into a summary gives me even greater respect for this process and for this school board. All of us serving on a not-for-profit board need to take the time to review the work and the effectiveness of the board.  This is especially important in this era of outcomes assessment; our outcomes also need to be assessed.  I am certain that the end result of this process if taken seriously is an even more effective board, which of course was the purpose to begin with.