First day of school, admin version

Today at Arizona State was the first day of classes in the fall semester. I know: a Thursday. Maybe Arthur Dent couldn’t get the hang of Thursdays, but we can.

My day:

  • Talk with several faculty about things like answering questions for a small transitional program, timelines for promotion processes, and TA assignments.
  • Meet with other members of an academic review self-study team (this is the seven-year version overseen by a provost’s office, not the one for specialized accreditation).
  • Have a two-hour academic coordination meeting with members of several different offices, which we have every other week through the year. Today’s just happened to fall on the first day of classes.
  • Scramble to answer urgent emails between meetings and after work.

That coordination meeting is essential to getting things done, because we have centralized offices in my college for advising, online-program support, business/HR functions, and the like. I chair it, but everyone has the authority to add agenda items, which we keep in a document that is a rolling record of meeting notes for prior meetings plus the current-meeting agenda. For about half the meetings in the year, a masters-program coordinator (lead faculty) attends, and we get to focus on the program’s needs with everyone in the room who can address critical issues.

Today, we did not have a program coordinator with us, and we needed every second of the meeting to set up what has to get done early in the semester to keep things moving forward with current programs being redesigned, new programs being set up, watching the technical back-end for courses (we’re moving from Blackboard to Canvas this year) as well as the college’s faculty governance committee for curriculum review (the platform used in the last half decade has finally died), checking in to see if there are any last-minute emergencies with the start of the semester or things to do for the half-semester courses that start in October, and starting to identify issues for spring. Oh, and figuring out the consequences of a bureaucratic change outside the college.

One of the advantages of the academic program review is the compilation of data across seven years that we see year-to-year but have a chance to see with a longer perspective. This semester, my unit has more than 3300 students. When I started at ASU, we had 1800 students. We gained a few hundred students this year simply from swapping a program with the other academic unit in the college. But I still have a substantially larger set of students for whom we’re responsible. And as noted by ASU’s president, Michael Crow (see the end of this blog entry), that means we’re responsible to their families as well.

The numbers? Let me focus on the college’s masters programs beyond initial teacher certification, where most of my division’s students have been over the years. We have dramatically increased enrollment in this seven-year period, roughly tripling the student headcount. Most of that increase is through opening and growing online programs. But we haven’t tripled our masters graduates in these programs.

Instead we’ve quintupled them.

That’s right. In creating some sizable online masters programs we have increased the number of graduates faster than we’ve increased enrollment. Since I came to ASU in 2014 my division has graduated more than 3000 masters students who have gone out into the world qualified to lead schools, help students with autism, teach English language learners, design instruction, and improve services at colleges and universities, among the careers our graduates can advance in. Our faculty, advisors, and other staff do a great job of teaching and supporting students, and that biweekly coordination meeting has one purpose: what can we do to help everyone who does the core work of teaching?

Here’s the secret: we talk about the same things repeatedly. We keep each other informed and accountable. We figure out how to pass the baton among ourselves and to others like the faculty curriculum review committee or a university office, and how to receive the baton when it’s passed back to us. We sometimes change our mind about how to support our colleagues and what steps to take next to open that new or redesigned degree. For example, today we had the sixth or seventh discussion in the past few months about the right order of course and curriculum proposals to keep several programs aligned during a review process. We decided that this package of materials has to be reviewed first by the faculty committee, though if you had asked me before the meeting, I would have put two other programs first.

From one perspective it can look very boring; the meeting isn’t anything you’d find in a college novel. It’s repetitive, task-oriented, very much about operational execution, and with few philosophical debates (though they do come up a handful of times a year). We do make mistakes, and things slip through on occasion because, well, we have more than 3300 students in 14 degree programs. When we find the mistakes, or when the mistakes find us, we acknowledge them, do our best to hold students harmless, and focus on fixing them and what led to them.

Two observations from seven years of being an administrator: first, it’s essential to have regular, task-oriented meetings with colleagues.

Second: I suppose that we count as a learning organization in that we know a great deal more about supporting faculty and students today than five or six years ago. When I began my current job after moving from Florida, my new colleagues had already figured out much about how to run a good online masters program in education, in part by thinking carefully and planning, and in part by fixing mistakes that had popped up. It’s been the same since I came here: some things have worked well because of planning and hard work, and some things we have learned through bruises.

But that learning is not on any clear, logical timeline. I have learned most through the bureaucratic bruises. They are unpredictable, and sporadic. In my experience, it does not make sense to assume that the cyclical or continuous-improvement model is the bulk of how organizations learn. Habits and routines are critical, yes, but there is nothing so helpful to learning than the punctuated equilibrium that comes with a problem you have to solve, especially with colleagues you trust.

Have I mentioned before that I haven’t been bored one single day at ASU?

As promised above, here’s the year-opening message from Michael Crow:

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