Is Your Employer in Trouble? Part 3

FEMA Photo/Leif Skoogfors

Last week, I discussed  some of the environmental aspects of working in U.S. higher education that ought to be considered by foreign academics. Today I have some links to information that is relevant to both foreign and U.S. audiences:

First, if you already work for a U.S. college or university, especially a small one, check out my recent essay in Inside Higher Ed on how to identify whether your employer is heading for unrecoverable failure. Colleges and universities don’t fall off of a cliff overnight; many exhibit danger signs for years. Faculty should pay attention to these signs if they want to preserve their careers — but frequently they don’t.

Second, Moody’s Investors Service reported that one-third of small private colleges in the USA had operating budget deficits in fiscal year 2016, up from one-fifth in 2013.

Third, this story in The New York Times discusses the bleak financial outlook for many colleges and universities in the USA, both private and public.

Coming to America

Today marks a return to an occasional series on higher education in the U.S., with a post co-authored with an esteemed colleague, Sally Gomaa. She attended graduate school in the U.S., works as a university professor, and is now a naturalized citizen.

Are you from outside the U.S. and considering academic employment here? Does a graduate program in the humanities or social sciences seem attractive because of an expectation that it will get you hired by a U.S. university? If you are wondering if job prospects in academia are better here than at home, they probably are not. The economic foundations of tertiary education in the U.S. are undergoing a long-term transformation that has greatly diminished everyone’s chances of a stable and rewarding career as a professor.

Education in the U.S. reflects the country’s penchant for local autonomy in the provision of public goods. Although the national government imposes certain legal burdens on all  of the country’s colleges and universities, there are no league table rankings or formal budgetary outlays toward the costs of instruction. Instead, the national government helps students defray the cost of their undergraduate educations by guaranteeing loans at subsidized rates. Only universities that are deemed in good standing by private, regionally-based accreditation organizations can enroll students who receive this federal aid.

Public universities do receive a portion of their operating funds from state governments via tax revenue. But there has been a decades-long disinvestment in higher education at the state level, and legislative allocations now comprise less than ten percent of the budget at many public university systems. The decisions of elected officials in states such as Illinois, Louisiana, and Wisconsin have significantly degraded the quality of public universities in those states. If you are thinking about applying for a faculty position at a public university campus, it is wise to investigate the financial treatment of that campus by its state government overlords. Continue reading

Emotion & simulations

Since Chad was kind enough to pick up on the theme of my post last week – emotion’s role in what we do – it’s only polite to return the favour.

Chad’s issue is one that all of us who use simulations encounter. We’re trying to build a more manageable version of the real world, which means selecting particular aspects to focus on, and then our participants go and mess it all up by focusing on some other aspect. Chad’s finding that with the South China Sea, I’m finding it with my parliamentary dynamics game and you’re finding it with something else.

How to deal with this? Basically, in one of three ways. Continue reading

Emotion and politics

The morning after the night before.

But not the night it was going to be.

I was going to write this morning about the black-tie do held by our Politics Society last night, and the importance of building a soft, social ties as part of a communal identity. I was going to write about how me looning about the dance-floor to classic disco tunes was something for you all to try with your students.

Instead, I’m sat in (a very quiet) Department, turning over the other events of last night, the attack in Manchester.

Maybe it was the relative lack of sleep, or maybe it was because my daughter was asking me what had happened, but this attack moved me more than most: the sense of distress and loss of so many parents, siblings, friends is one that I feel all too palpably right now.

In the worst possible way, it underlines the point I was going to be making: emotions matter.

They tie us together and tie us to what we do. When something moves us – for good or bad – then it engages us.

What we need to do is find ways to do more of the good engaging, and less of the bad. Something to write about next week, I think.

Flipping, active learning and the post-truth era

Challenging your view of chemists…

I really like doing L&T work, in part because I get to meet people I’d never otherwise would.

One of those is Simon Lancaster, a Professor of Chemical Education at UEA and a big L&T champion. We crossed paths a while back, discussing new teaching materials and his feed is great for both practical tips and more abstract reflection on what we do in classes.

Yesterday, Simon was tweeting about a conference that was coming up, when he posted this:

When I reposted this to our ALPSBlog feed, he added:

Much as I love debating on Twitter, I thought this was worth expanding on here first, especially since it touches on several debates that have graced these pages over the years. Continue reading

“The internet’s broken…”


Reading this piece of investigative journalism over the weekend, I was struck by the sub-text that if something’s not on the internet, then it doesn’t exist.

The author was investigating the use of micro-targetting of social media in the EU referendum and funding links to the US, and much of it turned on the absence of an online footprint of the various companies and entities.

This struck me as a marginal issue for two reasons: firstly, I’m a digital migrant, so I remember a time of card-filing and dusty archives; secondly, I work in a field where much activity remains resolutely off-line.

However, from the perspective of one of our students, things might look a lot different: we know that many of them seem to struggle to get beyond the first page of whatever Google search they have entered, so how do they cope with this kind of thing?

Three basic elements suggest themselves here. Continue reading

Doing it yourself, or helping others to do it

One of the more common challenges in HE is the “it’s just quicker to do it myself” thing. In the past week, I’ve heard this mentioned in teaching, research and administrative contexts: the idea that it might well be someone else’s role to do something, but it’ll be quicker to do it yourself.

I’ll take a guess that you’ve said this pretty recently. I know that I have.

If we want a justification for it, then we can argue that our professional lives are hectic and there isn’t much slack. As such, the marginal cost of doing it yourself is smaller than the marginal cost of helping someone else learn how to do it. You might take a more refined view of it and say that it’s just something that you’re doing now/this one time, but I’ll also guess you haven’t yet got round to addressing the root issue.

And this root issue is itself a bit complicated. Maybe the other person is new to their role, so simply hasn’t got the necessary experience. Maybe they’ve not done it for a while and have forgotten. Maybe they know but they’re not very good at it. Maybe they haven’t got the time to do.

What are you going to do?

The obvious choice to be made at the offset is whether you’re doing something about this or not. As a general rule, I subscribe to the ‘either do something about it, or put up with it’ school of thinking: if it’s a problem, then try to solve the problem, but if not then you don’t get to grumble about it. Sure, that makes me a bit of a repressed individual at times, but that’s my problem (and I’m not going to complain [sic]).

I appreciate that individuals vary, but in the contexts that we are talking about, bitching has no real value. Despite what we sometimes like to think, there are very few individuals ‘out to get us’ in the sector, just people pursuing objectives shaped by very varied incentives and interests: othering them and grumbling behind their backs isn’t going to change things for the better.

[And please do remind me of this when you catch me grumbling about something next time we meet.]

So if we’re putting up, rather than shutting up, then how to do it?

I’d suggest the way into thinking about it is to see matters as a collective endeavour. I know that treat our work as very personal, but much of it is actually highly transferable and we’re almost never in a situation where there is literally no-one else to be involved in our work.

If you can identify the common purpose that binds you to others, then it becomes easier to motivate yourself and those others to finding more efficient solutions.

Then you have to bite the bullet on dealing with the situation. Assume that this is as good a time as any. Unless there is something very obviously and immediately pressing in, just do it: there’s always going to be some reason not, so things aren’t going to improve. I speak from experience when I say that the mystical time in the future when ‘things are quieter’ doesn’t exist.

If the issue is one of experience or timing, then I’d suggest speaking directly to the person involved: try to understand their situation and their needs and try to help them understand yours. Again, this isn’t the moment for a long ‘you have no idea how busy I am’ tirade – this will just invite an equivalent response – but instead an effort to solve a problem – ‘how can we deal with this situation’. In short, you make it about the problem, not the people. as much as possible.

Of course, sometimes it is the people, in which case you need to get line management involved (especially if your line manager or those you manage are the problem). Again, focus on the solving of the problem as much as possible: management issues are management issues and there’s a whole architecture of policy and procedure to deal with those.

Maybe the key point to take is that the effort is worth it in the longer-run. Yes, it will take longer this time and it will be a faff, but if it leads to an improved situation down the line, then that will pay off for you and the team around you. Handled constructively, it’ll even improve the culture and environment for all of to deal with other things that come up.

And if it doesn’t work, then feel free to grumble to me about it.