52 Albums, Week 35: Triplicate (Bob Dylan)
52 Albums, Week 36: Dummy (Portishead)

Sunday Night Journal, September 3, 2017

When I was in high school and thinking about college, I thought of the admissions process as a test which I might or might not pass, a door whose default position was closed and which was only opened to those who met certain standards. The college, in my mind, was not offering to accept me; I was asking it for that privilege, and couldn't assume that it would be granted. In fact I probably could have assumed that about the school I ended up going to, the University of Alabama, since I had decent grades and good test scores, but I didn't know that, and there was at least some selectivity involved. 

Years later when I went to work at a small Catholic liberal arts college, I was more than a little shocked to discover that the admissions office could just as well (and more accurately) have been called the sales office. The job of the people who worked there was to sell the college to potential students, and while it did and does have some standards and does not admit everyone who applies, the task of the admissions staff is not to weed out the less qualified and select the best, but to recruit anyone who might possibly be able to manage both the course work and the expense. They were salespeople, as you sensed immediately if you spent time among them. (That's not a put-down; in my experience people who are good at selling are generally likeable.) That was twenty-five years ago. The task was difficult then and is just as much so now. 

I've read a good deal over the past decade or so, especially over the past five years, about the state of higher education. In many ways, as we all know, it's not very good. Among many other things, it has gotten insanely expensive, the cost far exceeding the general rate of inflation, and that's the topic of a lot of the commentary, which attempts to find causes and cures. But most of what I've read looks only at the big public universities, and possibly the bigger and more prestigious private ones. The situation of smaller and poorer institutions is very different. 

One thing which drives the overall development, and which is perhaps the biggest and most obvious thing affecting small colleges, is that there are too many of institutions pursuing too few potential students. I'm not sure exactly how this happened. There was the post-World-War-II baby boom, of course, and the fewer number of children produced by them than by their parents. But these little colleges didn't spring into existence to serve the baby boom--they existed before it. How were they managing before? I don't know. But I came into that job after a decade in the computer industry, and although I don't claim any great business insight it soon became obvious to me that if higher education had been like other areas of business,  it would have been long overdue for a shakeout: that is, for some significant number of the "companies" to fail because they were all selling very similar products and there simply weren't enough customers to support them all. 

That didn't happen, and the biggest single reason for that is federal financial aid. But the "business"--and in some ways, much as academics might like to think otherwise, higher education is in certain fundamental ways a business, even if it isn't intended to make a profit--the business has in some ways changed a great deal in twenty-five years, and in ways that are generally not much to the liking of those who really care about liberal education as an end in itself.

Last week I ran across a piece by John Seery in Modern Age called "Somewhere Between A Jeremiad and a Eulogy" which comes closer than anything else I've read to an accurate description of the situation in small liberal arts colleges. If you're interested in the subject, I recommend reading it. However, it still doesn't quite get to the fundamental problem of schools like mine, because the writer is at a school with a lot of money in the bank as well as a good deal of prestige. He doesn't understand (or at least doesn't address) the situation of schools which don't have big endowments and thus are dependent year-to-year on tuition and donations to keep them afloat.  One such, Marygrove College in Detroit, is essentially closing down, eliminating all its undergraduate programs. If you read the article at that link, you'll get a picture of the threat faced by every similar school; Marygrove has apparently hit a wall toward which many others have skidded fairly close but so far managed to avoid hitting. "Facing budget shortfalls and enrollment declines"--that prospect is all too familiar for similar colleges. And by the way note the names of the schools paragraph toward the end beginning "Other colleges....": a disproportionate number of small private liberal arts colleges are Catholic. (I suppose the early 20th-century improvement in both the numbers and the finances of Catholics in this country, combined with the desire to have specifically Catholic education, is part of my earlier question about how they came into existence pre-baby-boom.)

But the Modern Age piece misses a couple of things that perhaps apply to all institutions but are especially serious for small and relatively poor ones. One is the extent to which many of the changes which faculty deplore are driven by that market problem I mentioned (a "structural" problem, I think they call it). There are not enough qualified (financially and academically) students to go around. Therefore there is competition for them, and therefore every school is constantly looking for something to distinguish itself from other similar ones. For rich schools, the competition is for prestige. For lesser ones, it's for survival. This creates a sort of arms race for amenities. 

My field is software and my job involves (I'm still working part-time) the systems that support the dull everyday administrative work of the school. When I started at my school, there was much talk among technologists of using ("leveraging"--I hate that term) technology to set one's school apart. I groaned. I thought that was a recipe for disaster, or at least trouble. What would happen, obviously, I thought, was that the schools with bigger budgets would introduce new technology-based services, and for a while that would give them a competitive advantage, but other schools would be forced to follow along in order to keep up, and for the poorer ones this would not be an advantage but a simple necessity for keeping the doors open. I specifically remember thinking and saying that some twenty years ago when schools began to provide free internet access for their students. This, I said, would do nothing for our school but raise the cost of operating the place, which is exactly what happened. Free internet, including campus-wide wireless coverage, is now considered as much a necessity as electricity--and the school gets just the same appreciation and advantage for providing it.

Seery complains about the escalating cost of software. This is a a fact, and I sympathize. Technology is expensive and it plays a significant role in the rise of tuition. But it is more and more pervasive mainly because people want it, both students and faculty. Some faculty are clueless and frankly a bit bratty about technology: they want it, but they don't want to recognize the expense involved. I've been in more than one meeting where a faculty member has sneered at the school's IT staff because Other School has this or that cool new technology and we don't, unaware of and uninterested in the fact that Other School has three times the staff and four times the budget. In extreme cases the complaint is comparable to griping that the maintenance department is not building new buildings. 

The question of whether all this technology should even be provided is moot at most schools. Some people might argue that it is only a distraction and a drain, and I'd be inclined to agree about a lot of it. But it is not being forced upon people by the IT department--at least not at my school, where IT staff are just desperately trying to keep their heads above water.

A substantial part of Seery's complaint is the expansion of the school's administration. This is certainly a valid complaint. He is dubious that the explanations that point to federal regulations and the demands of accrediting agencies are sufficient. Well, they may not be sufficient, but they are certainly significant. I mentioned earlier that many institutions would have to shut their doors without federal financial aid (mostly loans). That happens to touch on the, um, dare I say, intersection of technology and administrative demands. As it happens my college uses the same administrative software that Seery's college does (unless they have recently changed). I'm very familiar with that software. The financial aid module is definitely the most complex piece of the system. And worse, it changes constantly, requiring attention in various ways from both IT and financial aid staff. And that change is driven by the decisions and policies of the Department of Education, and the college has no more choice about keeping up with those change than it does about paying the utility bill. 

Accreditation, I think, is driven by some of the same forces as technology. Bigger and richer schools establish "best practices." Smaller and poorer ones have to keep up because they have to stay accredited. They would not be eligible for federal programs if they were not, so withdrawal of accreditation would be a death sentence for most schools. (I believe Hillsdale College is one of the very few, if not the only, schools able to prosper outside this system. It would be interesting to know how they do it but it must involve a large endowment.)

Is it any wonder that in the midst of all this the role of faculty is diminished? I deplore that, but I think faculty often fail to comprehend the forces that are driving the change.

There's one thing in the Seery piece I'd like to emphasize, as I suspect it's not know outside of academia. He denies that faculty are, in general, the main drivers of campus leftism:

If you look closely, the most unabashed forms of politically correct scripting on campus—the hunt to root out microaggressions and supposedly traumatizing speech—originate from the bloated administrative wing of campus, often from the Dean of Students Office(s). The people ventriloquizing students, through relentless sensitivity campaigns, about safe spaces, hate speech, structural oppression, and diversity imperatives are the deans and deanlets of residential life (as one of my colleagues puts it, the “Residential Life Industrial Complex”).

I think this is more or less true on most campuses. It was only in the past five or ten years that this began to sink in on me: that the administrative arm which is responsible for overseeing all the non-academic aspects of campus life has a decided impulse toward left-wing proselytizing. I'm on the administrative, not the academic, side of the house, and have very little involvement or contact with academics. But my impression of the faculty at my school is that, though they may be pretty uniformly liberal-progressive in their views, they are also intellectually serious and honest, and are not the single-minded ideologues from whom we hear occasionally, and who seem to be mostly in those dubious specialties that are more less left-wing-activist by definition.

The growth of the whole student life sector is also related to the amenities arms race. As is the need for constructing elaborate recreational centers. As is the need to have a coffee shop in the library. And let's not leave out the effects of general cultural decline and stress which have helped to produce more students with bigger problems than was the case a generation ago, and the corresponding growth in various forms of support and therapy for them. And that reminds me of the lawyers: fear of lawsuits probably also generates defensive measures that require administrative overhead.

Both students and parents expect as a matter of course services and facilities that would have been considered luxurious and unnecessary even twenty years ago, to say nothing of forty or fifty. In short you could probably account for a substantial portion of the rise in college costs if you could figure out a way to measure the impact of the arms race, the constant push for schools to keep up or at least not fall too far behind in the competition for making themselves attractive to students.

If this sounds like students (and parents) are in the position of being picky and demanding customers in a buyer's market, they are. I've heard many times a student complaint that begins with "I'm paying $N,000 every year to go to school here, and I expect..." And this mentality, I hear, gets into the classroom as well, and probably has an effect on grade inflation.

Well, I'm running out of time, so I'll stop there, though I could run on at length. As an academic manqué, and a firm believer in the ideals of liberal education, as well as an employee at an IHED (institution of higher education), this is a subject of great import to me. I had several other things I'd meant to discuss but they can wait till next week.


I went out to bring in the garbage can one morning last week and looked up and saw this. I think I looked up because I had walked into a spider web and couldn't figure out what it was doing in the middle of the driveway. It made me think of Mirkwood. It's at least fifteen feet from one of the two trees to which the web was attached to the other.





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At the time when a professor in a somewhat larger Catholic liberal arts college was fired after criticizing their diversity program, the professors there said to me that the problem was the people in Admin selling student-places always claimed that the place was very diverse. They use it as a selling point for students. But then the students show up and its not all that diverse or really diverse at all. So the Admin-Sales people create a disjunction which then the students get upset about.

Im quite sure you are right that the focus on diversity etc is coming from the Admin-Sales staff, not the professors.

I hadn't ever thought of the technology as costing a lot of money. I am one of those bratty professors who can just about turn her computer on in the morning and is always sending out for help from IT

Asking for help is not bratty. Decent IT people don't mind that, except that he or she might be overloaded. (Of course you might get laughed at later if it turns out your computer wasn't turned on.) Being bratty is suggesting (or saying outright) that the incompetence of the IT staff is the reason that you don't have this cool thing that your friend at Megaversity has.

I doubt it's really the sales people themselves pushing diversity, I guess because I doubt that most students are actually looking for that. I've heard them joking about it, actually, though that's anecdotal. But I think it's more the admin types who want to look good to their counterparts at other schools, and just in general want to be seen as enlightened etc. What I used to hear from the sales people was more like "Why don't we have a degree in golf course management? People want that!" At which my sensitive English-major soul fell out and called for the smelling salts.

James Hitchcock said years ago that he thought part of the driver of the de-Catholicization of Catholic schools was that scholars cared only about their reputations among peers at secular schools and were a little (or a lot) embarrassed by the faith. Something similar probably operates in administrators now.

Yes, its very apparent. Once I ran into a group of senior administraors at the airport, on their way to an administrator conference in some big University 'ElSEWHERE'. They felt so important to be going somewhere else.

In that situation a lot of them probably have their eyes on their next job as well.

I should have said "decent IT *support* people." I'm not one of those. I'm the curmudgeon programmer whom the VP prefers to keep out of sight of other VPs.

Federal goverment --> accreditors --> diversity at higher education.

among other reasons.

I went to a conference of the Higher Learning Commission (the Midwest regional accrediting association). Diversity is everywhere.

Our admin and sales is all in one building

Grumpy, at your school the sales is in every building. And outside, too.

I don't mean the school's sales and marketing don't tout Diversity. They do. It's an essential part of respectability. But I don't think the people actually out in the field making the sales pitch consider it nearly as important as people at the VP level do. Upper management at Toyota may go out and make speeches where they get all dewy-eyed about the Prius and being green etc, but the people out on the lot trying to sell cars every day know that a whole lot more people want a Tacoma or a Land Cruiser.

I see a lot more Priuses in Mobile than I do Tacomas or Land Cruisers!

At my school we are beginning the "concierge model" which apparently involves the students being able to ask for a lift to Walmart, and drop off their laundry.

And this is a conservative Christian (Baptist) school, so diversity is not a topic of conversation that I can remember.

Really? (re Toyotas) It's not something I pay a lot of attention to but seems like I see more Tacomas than Priuses. Maybe the former are just more noticeable. Not many Land Cruisers, actually, but Toyota SUVs in general, of which there seem to be many models.

Anyway, my basic point is that it's a relatively small number of people who want the virtuous Prius. So I looked it up. In 2016 Toyota sold approximately 2,100,000 vehicles in the U.S. Of those 115,000 were Priuses.


I just looked at your web site and indeed "diversity" does not make an obvious appearance. However you do have a "VP for Kingdom Diversity Initiatives." Whatever that is.

My granddaughter and great grandchildren are in Puerto Rico. The hurricane won't hit there until tomorrow, but the power is already out.
Please keep them in your prayers.


I will.

I'm glad you mentioned this. I didn't know about it. We have close friends in San Juan.

Well, I'll pray for them too.


"Irma is in the midst of a very subtle turn toward the west-northwest, which may take its center just north of the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. "

Let's hope so. Let's hope more in fact.

Lets hope so indeed

As of about 30 minutes ago it seems that PR is not going to get the absolute worst, but bad enough.

Well, it seems the worst of Irma is over for PR, and it wasn't as bad as expected, but I imagine things won't be easy there for a while. But then, things are never very easy there.

I'm really glad that apparently it is going to give Haiti a miss. I can't stand to think of their having another horrible tragedy.

Poor Florida.


I'm very glad to hear that it wasn't as bad as it might have been. There's still grounds for hope and prayer that it will turn away from the mainland. There's some kind of "system" over our way that's expected to keep it away from us (knock on wood) and maybe push it further east.

this is all good

It's suddenly bitterly cold here--64 degrees. Good for keeping hurricanes away.

Does cool weather keep them away? I think it was Ivan maybe where it was relatively cool afterwards. That made it not too terrible to go without electricity for several days, nine if I remember correctly.

I'm sure worried about South Florida. I have no more family there, but of course I know many people. My uncle in Jacksonville does not seem to be too concerned, spoke with him yesterday and he spent most of the conversation explaining why no one should take statins. :)

I'm exaggerating. It wouldn't stop a hurricane that's already formed and bearing down on you, though it might weaken it. But whatever is giving us the cool weather is also responsible for the northward turn that the storm is expected to take.

There's good reason to worry. I'm hoping and praying that the turn will go more northeastward.

The air conditioner in the church here was broken, and the new one was supposed to be installed in the Spring. Well, it finally got installed and running Tuesday, when it was cold in the morning with a high of about 72.

This morning it was 55--68 now. We are going to have almost perfect weather all week. Makes me feel a bit guilty.


But to be honest, only a bit.


It's not like you stole somebody else's cool air. But maybe you feel guilty anyway because you know you would have if you could have.

I would gladly steal some cool air from New England, but not from anybody south of the Mason-Dixon line--not even Alabama.


That's good, because stealing from people who don't have very much is pretty bad.

My first three summers here I had no air conditioning. It was baking hot down to the end of September. Now I have my own home with hot and cold running conditioners, and its so cold I'm thinking of turning the heat on, on the 7th of September. I used to feel irritated when there was no need for airconditioning, now that I have it. But now I don't mind. The dog loves the autumn and so do I.

" baking hot down to the end of September." Right, at least then and often longer here. That's why I was so shocked when I stepped outside this morning and it was cool.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco area set heat records with 100+.

The weather here has been really good since the hurricane. Haven't had a day over 91 for the last few days.

Prayers for Janet's family too in PR. Sounds like they're ok?

Maclin, this was a great piece. I would have been very interested at any time, but am even more, since my kids' home schooling debating league are debating on the topic of reform of Higher Education in the USA. This is the topic for the whole year.

So now I'm eagerly awaiting any further reflections.

Glad you liked it. I ran across one or two other things this week that I was going to mention...but now I can't remember what they were...maybe they'll come back.

You're fortunate about the weather. Seems like usually it's brutally hot after a hurricane.

I'm getting a little uneasy about Irma on my own behalf. It keeps shifting westward.

Yeah, I just noticed!

My family in PR is fine if posting nonsense on Facebook is any indication. ;-) Of course, they have no power and I don't know where they are getting water, but they ate at McD's, so somebody has power.

I'm getting a little uneasy about Irma on my own behalf. It keeps shifting westward.

No joke. We are definitely going to get poured upon again, but this time I'm going to be ready. For most of the past 16 years I have kept several bottles of water in the house in case the electricity goes off, but last week I got caught without any.

I read something that suggested Irma might come as far as Mobile early on. I hope not.

On the other hand, Jose seems to be behaving nicely, pulling away from the islands even sooner than anticipated and Katia is just a tropical depression now.


So no power but rationed water. Their apt. is on the 10th floor, so they get a good breeze.


Could have been so much worse. If they have no power they're Facebooking on battery, I guess? Not the most prudent use. Or maybe they just go to McDonalds and recharge.

Looks like the north side of Cuba is getting beat up pretty badly right now. And the west coast of Florida rather than the east coast is going to get the worst of it. Still no projections showing it getting very far over this way.

I saw what purported to be an early projection for Katrina that had it just a bit westward from where Irma is supposed to be going now. You never can tell.

They have somehow never been without power for that phone. There was only a brief period when they were out of communication and that was because they couldn't get a signal.

Poor Cuba. So many people there just beginning to gain some financial stability.


The addictive power of these phones is scary, and Facebook seems to be the most addictive thing of all. It's like two drugs combined.

Well, she isn't always on Facebook like this. She wants to see what is going on with the weather and keep us informed.

But Facebook is definitely a problem although for me it's much less than it was.


I wasn't thinking specifically of her. They get ahold of everybody.

I'm glad to hear they're ok, Janet.



So now the latest cone on NOAA's website is just south of Grumpy.


I trying to have more concern for Florida and less for what the chances are of it taking a western turn, hanging around in the Gulf getting stronger, and coming over here.

"Just south of Grumpy" -- a line filled with possibilities. Maybe a song, even. ;-)

That storm looks terrifying in the video clips I've seen. And an apartment 10 flights up in a building with no electricity? Lordy me.

Well, they have a generator in the apartments that runs the elevator at certain times. She has, however, had to walk up and down the steps at least once. I guess you can do that if you are 22.

I would be terrified to get on that elevator.


Excellent idea, Marianne. Maybe I'll write it.

"Just south of grumpy and headin' for mad."

What is NOAA? What is a cone?

I just looked at a map that shows there were no planes ovee Florida at 6.30 today. I can see why Mac is apprehensive. Alabama is just to the West of all this.

Geography has always been a weak spot for me

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It's the National Weather Service. The cone is the area in which the storm may travel, although it has been changing a lot in the past couple of days.


The current cone shows it going right for Janet.

They (hurricanes) can just be very unpredictable. Harvey wasn't supposed to sit still for 48 hours or whatever it was, dumping rain.

Here's an example of a "cone" as of 11pm EDT. The cone is sort of blurred by the yellow blob that shows areas of possible tropical storm intensity around the hurricane. Wind is down to 100mph. That's very good news.


By the time it gets to Janet it's expected not to be a hurricane anymore, probably not much more than a lot of rain.

I see. I wouldnt have guessed that thing like a chicken leg is called a cone. Im reading the storm is downgrading to 85 mph

Robert, the last one I saw was going straight for me, then turning to go for my daughter in Louisville, and the to Grumpy.

Haven't looked this morning.


Grumpy, You're right. Cone is ridiculous.


Ha. True at the moment. Early on it looked a lot more like a cone.

We (the U.S.) got off a lot more easily than was expected. It's not even hurricane strength at the moment. Hope it stays that way.

I see that at the moment, we are at the end of the line. Shouldn't be to bad.


Janet, I'm glad to hear that your family in Puerto Rico came through alright.

Thanks. It was 106F in PR yesterday, so they are spending a lot of time driving around with the a/c on and window shopping in places with generators. ;-)


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