I have a confession to make: One of my favorite sources of strategic insight is “Confessions of a Community College Dean.” It has been written since 2004 by Matt Reed, Ph.D., who used to write under the pseudonym, “Dean Dad.” But, in 2012, Reed revealed his true identity to promote the upcoming release of his book, Confessions of a Community College Administrator.
In May 2015, Reed became the vice president for learning Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, New Jersey. Previously, he was vice president for academic affairs at Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts, from 2008 to 2015, and division dean of liberal arts at the County College of Morris in Randolph, New Jersey, from 2003 to 2008.
A native of Rochester, New York, Reed lived in New Jersey for nearly 20 years and served as a faculty member at Kean University and Rutgers University. He earned a doctoral degree in political science from Rutgers in 1997.
Reed started writing his blog in 2004 while he was a dean at the County College of Morris. Blogs were starting to catch on. In an interview with a Holyoke Community College news reporter in 2012, Reed explained that most blogs about higher education in 2004 were written by grad students or young faculty members who seemed to subscribe to the idea that college administrators were all “money-grubbing, parasitic, greedy robber barons.”
Reed said, “I thought, I can see what they’re getting at, but that doesn't describe me.” He added, "It doesn’t describe anyone I know and it doesn’t describe the way decisions get made in any place I’ve ever been, so I decided, you know, I have something to contribute to this discussion.”
So, he created his alter ego and began posting columns to Blogger.com. “Confessions of a Community College Dean” caught the attention of Inside Higher Ed, which started running it in 2007. He’s been writing ever since.
In his blog, Reed describes himself as “a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s (who) moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two.” He adds that the use of “Dean Dad” as his pseudonym was a very deliberate choice to bring attention to the idea that balancing a full-time job as a college administrator and a home life was not just a women’s issue.
According to Reed, “Men, my age, and younger, have wives who expect us to be fully present at home and be active parents.” He adds, “We can't get away with the kinds of things our dads did. Workplaces still assume there’s a full-time person at home, and I think that blind spot needs to be addressed. In perhaps a clumsy way it was an attempt to sort of make a political statement that we’re all three dimensional and parents have complicated lives, not just mothers.”
In his blog, Reed has always co-mingled discussions about higher education with anecdotes from family life. Frequently occurring characters are The Wife, a.k.a., TW, The Boy (TB) and The Girl (TG). Although he has given up his own anonymity, he plans to continue the pseudonyms for his family.
According to Reed, “When they grow up, I don’t want the first results of an employer’s internet searches to be cute stories I wrote about them in elementary school.”
One of his favorite columns was about the awkwardness when someone came in to talk business while he was getting dressed in the locker room of a community college gymnasium and fitness center. He says, “A lot of readers wrote in and said, ‘yea, it is awkward when I see my college president or my dean in the gym.’ That’s part of the experience.”
Recently, Reed wrote a post about transfer challenges entitled, “What Do You Advise Amy toTake?” As the editor of The Advocate of Affordable College blog, I confess that when I read his post, I said to myself, “I wish that I’d written that.”
Reed said a discussion on Twitter started by Lee Skallerup Bessette (@readywriting), an Instructional Technology Specialist at the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies at the University of Mary Washington, prompted him to think “about some of the issues that get in the way of successful community college to four-year transfer.”
According to Reed, “transfer” is one of those topics that “many people think they understand, but few actually do. To the extent that most people think about it, they imagine students at community colleges getting the associate’s degree in two years, and then getting the bachelor’s in two more. And that does happen. But the picture is much more complicated than that.”
Lateral and reverse transfers have their own sets of issues. But, even with the more traditional vertical transfer, he says, “I get twitchy when I read about ‘leaky pipelines’ and community colleges. That language assumes that it’s essentially an engineering problem; it isn’t. It’s largely a political problem.”
Reed describes a riddle he tries to solve every single day on his campus. (He changes the names and details for the sake of decorum.) He says, “Amy wants to get her degree at the community college and transfer on for a bachelor’s, but she isn’t sure yet where she wants to go. Hypothetical State U wants her to have taken US History, Pre-calc, and a year of a foreign language. St. Somebody wants her to have taken European History, Statistics, and a separate diversity course. Meanwhile, Respected Private College wants her to have taken World Civ, Calc I, and a service learning course.”
Then he asks rhetorically, “What do you advise Amy to take?”
Reed goes on to say, “Multiply that dilemma by more receiving institutions, chains of prerequisites, student preferences, and majors, and you begin to get the idea.”
He adds, “Although we try to work around it, this issue will not, and cannot, be solved only at the community college level. We twist ourselves into pretzels to try to satisfy the idiosyncratic and frequently-changing preferences of four-year partners. But when each four-year partner wants different things, it’s impossible to satisfy them all. That’s especially true when entering students don’t have a single destination in mind.”
According to Reed, “The internal politics of many four-year colleges make matters worse. Admissions offices will frequently defer to receiving departments for decisions on the acceptance of transfer credit. Receiving departments are frequently willing to accept gen eds, but unwilling to ‘give away too many credits’ in the major. They want those FTE’s for themselves. They can do that and still comply with statewide transfer mandates by reclassifying classes as 300 level, rather than 200 level, and/or by awarding ‘free elective’ credit for transfer classes, rather than credits in the major. In the absence of some sort of master list of what belongs at what level, a 300 level class is whatever the receiving department says it is.”
Reed declares, “In most professions, such an obvious conflict of interest would have been blocked years ago. But in higher ed, it’s so normal that most of us don’t even see it.”
He acknowledges, “In parts of the country with relatively robust private college sectors, there’s a limit to what legislative mandates can do. But even on the public side, where mandates can exist, it’s easy to evade their intent while staying within the letter of the law. Every exception becomes a new ‘leak.’”
Reed then nails his thesis to the door: “The politics become obvious when you start trying to engineer a solution. If every college agreed on what belongs at which level, and what the transfer requirements should be, then it would be far easier to ensure that students would transfer and get full credit. But that would involve a central authority, outside of the four-year colleges, making academic decisions for them. Departments would have to live with the decisions others made; they would lose their power to make those calls. Experience tells me they’d fight that bitterly, invoking ‘academic integrity’ to protect their own enrollments.”
Reed concludes, “The metaphor of the ‘leaky pipeline’ assumes that the system is basically well-designed, and just needs some fixes. I’d argue that the system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets. If you want different results -- as I do -- the changes will be a lot more drastic than fixing leaks. The issue isn’t Amy or her community college; the issue is that there’s no obvious answer to her question. Until there is, we can expect the ‘leaks’ to continue.”
The Advocate of Affordable College agrees with Reed. This isn’t an engineering problem; it a political problem. But as Uber, Airbnb, and other “sharing economy” businesses have already demonstrated in other fields, a technological innovation may be the solution. If such an innovation is developed, then community colleges across America could adopt it to help more than 1.3 million of their students save $20 billion dollars in tuition on their way to a bachelor's degree!
(Greg Jarboe is the editor of The Advocate of Affordable College blog and the former editor of the Knowledge Transfer blog. He’s also the president and co-founder of SEO-PR, an instructor at the Rutgers Business School, the content marketing faculty chair at Market Motive, as well as the author of YouTube and Video Marketing: An Hour a Day.)