Learned Along the Way


On Monday I had the chance to speak again at Ross Gittell’s class on community colleges at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It’s the only class on community colleges offered there, so the students are mostly focused on other areas in higher education.

I went because it’s flattering to be asked, I like Ross, and I want the next cohort of higher education leaders to know what they’re dealing with. The official topic was student success measures, but as I prepared, I got to thinking about things I’ve learned on the job that weren’t what I would have guessed when I started. For example,

  • The higher the level of math, the higher the pass rate. Calculus gets much higher pass rates than Algebra, which, in turn, has higher pass rates than basic computation.  That’s the polar opposite of the “weed ‘em out” model.
  • Cynicism and idealism coexist at every rank. 
  • Cynical explanations aren’t always true, even when they’re presented with great confidence.
  • Laws aren’t always passed with anything that most of us would recognize as a deliberative process.  Unintended consequences are everywhere.
  • Many students think an an online exam is, by definition, open-book. It it not.
  • Partnerships between institutions are often much more labor-intensive per student than projects carried out entirely internally.  That’s true even when everyone involved is working in good faith. The number of variables increases exponentially.
  • Questions that start with an angry “Why don’t they just…?” usually rest on not knowing something crucial.
  • Smart people have all the same human failings as everybody else.
  • Beware of the moving baseline. “Temporary” measures have a way of becoming permanent as baselines move, unacknowledged. This is especially true of public appropriations.
  • Health insurance is the extinction-level event for public institutions.
  • FERPA is your friend. Learn it, know it, use it.
  • Many people do not perceive the status quo as a conscious choice.  
  • Institutions are often much more tenuous than they appear.  

WIse and worldly readers, what one-liners have you learned along the way?

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Advice Newsletter publication dates: 
Monday, February 11, 2019
Diversity Newsletter publication date: 
Monday, February 11, 2019



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