• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.



Making decisions with imperfect information.

September 21, 2020

When I first moved from faculty to administration, I remember being surprised at the conditions in which decisions were made.

I had previously thought that administrative decisions should be made like academic decisions: gather evidence, test hypotheses, see what has been done elsewhere, debate and land on something thoughtful. When they weren’t made that way, I assumed that someone wasn’t paying attention. And sometimes that’s true. But the eye-opener for me was discovering how many decisions need to be made quickly, with partial information and no chance to run scenarios.

Discussions of options for the spring semester reminded me of those basic truths.

They involve making several decisions. Can we realistically ramp up the in-person offerings for spring, at least slightly? If so, which ones, and under what conditions? For the rest, do we keep the current balance of synchronous and asynchronous, or do we change it? Either way, based on what?

Registration for the spring starts in November, which means that we need to make scheduling and staffing decisions in October. We can’t wait until January to see what happens. “Waiting for the dust to settle” isn’t really an option.

In terms of the virus, that requires making a best guess as to the progress (or not) of the pandemic over the next several months. I don’t know of any way to make that prediction with certainty. Increased mask usage may hold it at bay, or increased indoor presence in the colder months may accelerate it. There may be a surge with flu season, or there may be a vaccine. The state may allow more in-person classes, or not. None of that is knowable now, and none of it will be knowable by the time we have to make the call. So there’s a wild card from the start.

We don’t know what the local K-12 schools will do in January, and probably won’t know until after the deadline for us to make the call.

In terms of the balance of synchronous and asynchronous, I would love to have good data on student success in various disciplines by format. But we won’t have even the most basic completion data for fall until January, because grades aren’t due until January. We certainly won’t have much to go on by mid-October. And that’s just first-level information; deeper dives by demographics and disciplines would take longer. Worse, it may be a couple of years before the results of the formats are really comparable in any serious way, just because this is literally the first full semester that we’ve run synchronous classes at scale. Comparing a brand-new modality to one we’ve been running for 20 years is likely to be misleading. The single best criterion by which to decide -- what’s best for the students? -- is still, by default, a matter of opinion.

Saying that decisions should be “data-driven” assumes that the data exist. Right now, they don’t.

Plenty of people have strongly held opinions, of course. But even opinions based on personal experience and formed in good faith are often specific to a given situation. They may not generalize. I’ve seen professors in the same department, who teach some of the same classes, disagree strongly about the merits of one textbook as against another, and that should be a much easier call. I know some folks who want to come back as quickly and fully as possible, and others who think we should stay as remote as we can as long as we can. Both groups appear to be sincere. At least one of those groups won’t be entirely sold on any decision. The existence of contrary opinions is not, in itself, proof of error.

Hypothesis testing is even harder. We can’t rerun a semester under multiple conditions to see what happens, of course, and people don’t do their best work in the conditional tense. Once we make the call, the task at hand is to carry it out to the fullest.

Several years ago, I heard someone say that it’s not about making the right decision; it’s about making the decision right. In this case, I think that’s correct. A year from now, we may look back and say something like “if we had known then …” but that’s the price of admission.

In moments like these, the “moral center” I referred to last week matters. Omniscience is not a reasonable expectation, but the right motives are. The right instincts are. Those don’t change.

Spring is coming, ready or not. Certainty may take a little longer.


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