Word Salad

I love words:  new words, ancient words, musical words, jarring words.  As one consequence of my love of words, I play word games on my phone to relax.  I also love to play Scrabble.  For me, our words – how and when and why we use them – reflect who we are and how we choose to go through the world.  Words have power and impact and should be used wisely.

I also love a good salad.  Good salads are sweet and savory, crispy and crunchy and smooth, with a little acidity – a little bite or tang.  They’re visually appealing as well as tasty.  A good salad can combine unexpected ingredients and make something brand new, just like words can be combined in new ways to foster new understanding.

So while the phrase “word salad” has negative connotations, I would argue that a word salad could be marvelous.  As educators we believe in the power of communication to change lives.  As educators, we have encountered word salads from our students that were not appetizing, but we have also seen our students put words together in brilliant and eloquent and unexpected ways, haven’t we?

Every January we hear about “words to ban” and “words to bring back”.  Lake Superior State University just released its 45th annual “List of Words Banished From the Queen’s English for Mis-use, Over-use, and General Uselessness“, while Wayne State University just released a list of “Words that Deserve Wider Use“.

Reading these two lists caused me to cachinnate, so after a period of perendinating, I resolved to write what I hope is a luculent blog post about words.   (In other words, I laughed out loud, I procrastinated for a couple of days, and then I resolved to write an expressively clear blog post about words.)

And as I start a new semester in a new year, I also resolve to banish these words from my vocabulary for the duration: quid pro quo,  artisanal, curated, mouthfeel, vibe check, and influencer.

That resolve may be merely velleity, or it may be absolute mullock.   (In other words, it may be an inclination that isn’t strong enough to lead to action, or it may be rubbish.)

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

An AVP’s Aspen Journey – Chapter Four

Pushing Jello Across a Shag Rug

Isn’t that a great image?

At the second on-site convening of the fourth cohort of Aspen Presidential Fellows, we heard from current and former community college presidents who offered their wisdom on a variety of subjects.  One of those presidents used the jello metaphor to describe a difficult choice – as in, “it’s like pushing jello across a shag rug.  You’re not sure if you want to eat it once you’re done.”

I expect we’ve all found ourselves in such difficult situations, but I also expect we haven’t ever found ourselves thinking about jello and shag rugs.  So enjoy the notion and the visual image.

I Am Not Your Pimp

Yes, a former community college president told a story that ended with that line.  It seems that when she was president, one of her Board members propositioned a friend of hers at a hotel bar.  When her friend refused, the Board member threatened to get her (the president) fired if the friend didn’t reconsider.

The story was told in the context of illustrating a president’s role in Board management – and it certainly illustrated the range of challenges in that presidential role.  What did this college president do when it happened?  She passed the information along to her Board chair for action.  (The Board member was eventually removed.)  And she thought to herself – “I am not your pimp.”

Be a Boundary Crosser

To lead in a higher education setting, we were advised, you must be a boundary crosser.  You must learn the language of your partners, particularly your external partners such as local business leaders, area school superintendents, non-profit CEOs, and university presidents.

Another speaker made the observation that in many of those boundary-crossing settings, the common language is skills.  One of the things we do at ACC is help our students develop necessary employability skills, and those skills can be translated from curriculum to students to employers.  In other words, our boundary-crossing can move beyond jargon and insular language and instead become a discussion of skills development and economic mobility for our students.  After all, 99% of our students are in workforce programs, aren’t they?  They are all seeking economic stability and mobility and a good life for themselves and their families.  And they’ve come to us for help with those goals.

Look for the Brown M&Ms

Another story we heard concerned the rock band Van Halen and brown M&Ms.  Apparently for many years Van Halen’s contract with concert organizers included a requirement that a bowl of M&Ms be available in the backstage area before every concert, but with all the brown M&Ms removed.  If there were brown M&Ms, the promoter would forfeit the full price of the show, according to the provisions of the contract.  Seems ridiculous, doesn’t it?

It turns out that if members of the band saw brown M&Ms backstage, they knew that the promoter had not read the contract closely.  And thus they knew they would have to check every detail of their lighting, staging, and sound requirements prior to the concert.  The brown M&Ms told them something important about how to prepare for every concert.

We should all look for brown M&Ms in our work here at ACC – the brown M&Ms are the small things that can disrupt the student experience or discourage a student or make it harder for a student to move forward.  The more we pay attention to details, the more we can help our students find, navigate, and complete their chosen pathway.

The Poor Door

Have you heard this term?  I had not.  It’s apparently a 21st century phrase, and it describes housing developments that have separate entrances for market-rate tenants and affordable-housing tenants.  This segregation may also extend to gyms, pools, parking spaces, or elevators.

Community colleges are known as the people’s colleges.  But do we sometimes unwittingly have a “poor door”?  Do we focus so much on our open doors that we forget to think about how to help students once they come through the door?  That’s the premise of guided pathways, essentially – to reinvent our systems and processes so that we’re more than a poor door to limited opportunities.  We should expect the best of all our students.  We should recognize that some of our students are homeless, or hungry, or working three jobs.  We should make sure that our single door serves all students without regard to their economic or familial or linguistic or educational challenges.  We don’t ever want to have a “poor door” at ACC.

Happy 2020

As we move into 2020, I wish you a new year free of yucky jello and unnoticed but important details.

I wish you a new year full of common ground, common language, and collaboration.

I wish you a new year full of equal expectations and equitable outcomes for all, with no poor doors in sight.

Here’s to a happy, merry, joyful 2020 for us all.

A Day in the Life of An AVP – the Holiday Edition

The semester is ending.  

The year is ending.

Here’s to the passing of the old semester and the old year.

Here’s to the coming of a new semester and a new year.

Here’s to the work we do, the students we help, the lives we change, the friends and colleagues with whom we work.

Celebrate!  Here’s to the unexpected opportunities, the new initiatives, and the collaborative work that will be part of 2020.

See ya in the new year!

Image credits:  Bellinon from Pixabay; Annalise Batista from Pixabay.

Registration By the Numbers

Do you know who our students are?  Not who our students were a decade ago, but who our students are today.

If you look at the registration summary for Fall 2019 (dated 11/4/2019), you will see that our credit headcount is 41,232 students.  Of that, 11,682 students were new to ACC:  a 4.1% increase over Fall 2018.  Of the “new to ACC” students, 4,156 were in high school programs:  a 14.4% increase over Fall 2018.

Re-read that last sentence.  Our new students in high school programs (dual credit, P-TECHs, Early College High Schools) increased by 14.4% this Fall.  By contrast, this Fall there are 7,526 traditional students who are new to ACC, a slight decline over last Fall of -0.8%.  

What about continuing students?  We have 4,372 continuing students in high school programs this Fall, an increase of 7.0% over last Fall.  We have 25,178 continuing traditional students, a decline of -4.0% over Fall 2018.

What about Distance Education?  We have 12,416 students in Distance Education classes this Fall, an increase of 11.1% over Fall 2018.  2,580 are new to ACC, and 9,836 are continuing students.

These numbers are not an aberration or an anomaly.  They reflect a trend – our student population is changing.  As of today (12/11/2019), our Spring numbers show an increase of 16.7% in new high school program students, and a decline of 6.0% in new “traditional” students.  Our continuing high school program numbers have jumped by 12.9% over Spring 2019, while our continuing traditional student numbers are currently -2.0% below last Spring.  Our Distance Education numbers show an overall increase of 7.9% to date over Spring 2019.

In other words, our Distance Ed students make up approximately 30% of our overall enrollments, and our dual credit students make up slightly more than 20% of our overall enrollments.

These numbers mean we are serving different students in different settings than we did in 2009.

Do these numbers mean we should be thinking differently about how we help them learn?

Should we be thinking differently about what it means to be a college student as we head into 2020?

Should we rethink our understanding of our student population?

Should we celebrate who they are, rather than thinking nostalgically about who they were ten or twenty years ago?

Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

Image credits:  Gerd Altmann from Pixabay; TheDigitalArtist from Pixabay

A Day in the Life of an AVP: Gratitude

While a modern Thanksgiving often turns on football, family, and food, it is also a time to be grateful.  So this month’s edition of A Day in the Life is about gratitude.

I am grateful for good people doing good work at ACC.  Today I met with Grant Potts and Estrella Barrera, who have led the roll-out of our faculty student mentoring program. They are two very good people who have done very good work.

I am grateful for colleagues who drop into my office and distract me – or who let me drop into their offices to help me think something through.  This one is always a long list (!), but today the list includes Gretchen Riehl, Charles Cook, Rich Griffiths, and Tammy Chalermpued.

I am grateful for the opportunity to serve the mission of Austin Community College and help change the trajectory of our students’ lives.  We make the difference for students who find their paths into a career or program of study that fits their interests and talents.  We make the difference for students who need to learn English, or pass a high school equivalency exam, or change careers, or upgrade their skills, or learn how to read, or pass their math class.  We make the difference for students who are the first in their families to go to college and who discover that ACC is, indeed, for everyone.

I am grateful for challenging projects, and bosses with high expectations, and friends and colleagues across the college who help me, brainstorm with me, listen to me, and support me.  Our work matters, and if we do it well, then we are doing it together.

My thanks to each and every one of you.   We get to come to work every day knowing the impact we can have – and it’s a wonderful thing to be grateful for.

Yay ACC – We’re Stars

On Friday, November 22, Austin Community College was designated as a 2019 Star Award recipient for our work around open educational resources (OER), and in particular for our efforts to create Z-degrees (zero textbook cost degrees) that help our students stretch their financial resources.  Z-classes and Z-degrees mean that our students’ finances can go farther because they are not paying $200 or $300 for a textbook.

Earlier this year we asked students how they would use the savings from their Z-classes.  Here’s a very small sampling.






We sometimes forget to ask how our students are managing to pay for everything that college requires – not just tuition and fees, but textbooks and lab manuals and courseware access codes and calculators and nursing scrubs and a chef’s toque.  We also know that many of our students experience food insecurity and housing worries and child care expenses.  Our ability to help them juggle all these expenses through the course materials that we choose can have a remarkable impact.

To date we have saved our students approximately $4.5 million in textbook costs (using $100 as an average savings).  The Star Award recognizes the commitment of faculty and staff who believe in the goal and who take a chance on something different like OER.

Thanks to all – and yay ACC! We’re stars.  

An AVP’s Aspen Journey: Chapter Three

I am four months into my Aspen Fellowship, and about to leave for the second convening of the 2019-2020 cohort.  The Aspen Institute offers robust, rigorous, and challenging professional development for community college professionals who want to be transformational leaders.  It is an honor to be part of the current cohort, full of passionate, dedicated, committed, brilliant community college leaders who will indeed transform colleges across the country.

39 of us are gathering Wednesday afternoon at a conference center outside of Washington, D.C., where we will learn, eat, talk, practice, present, and learn some more, until we all scatter for home Sunday evening.

Among our homework assignments for this second convening was to develop and debut to our colleagues a 5-minute presentation around data.  We are each asked to tell a story with data from our college as a means of pitching a high-level, big-picture idea to an external partner.  In essence, this homework is a rehearsal for our April “capstone” presentation that is to be 15 well-prepared, well-conceived, well-rehearsed, well-timed minutes, complete with compelling visuals – and perhaps video.  Again we will pitch a high-level, transformative idea that has the potential to alter the trajectory of our students and support significant improvement in our student success outcomes – however our students define their success, whether it be a better job, transfer without loss of credits to a four-year institution, or both.

Additional homework included reading The Transfer Playbook and completing the self-assessment tool, as well as reading The Workforce Playbook and completing that self-assessment tool.  My thanks to my colleagues at ACC who offered ideas and perspective on both assessments.

So – wish me well.  I’ll let you know how it goes and some of the things I learn when I write Chapter Four of my Aspen Journey.

A Day in the Life of an AVP – the Pinball Edition

What is it like to be a pinball?  I think I know – because I often describe my AVP days as “pinballing”.  I go from one thing to another to another, back to the first and then over to a fourth thing.  I zig and zag and zig again.  And  sometimes (but not often) I feel like I’m going down the drain.

This month I thought I’d give you a feel for a day of pinballing.  I’ll save the gory details – but I’ll highlight the work.  The key to understanding why I feel like a pinball is knowing that I rarely get to spend much focused on a single thing.  I start one thing and then have to zig over to another, more pressing thing.  I work a bit on that thing and then have to zag to a meeting.  I leave the meeting and zig to issues that arise via email.  I get through a few emails and than zag to a new problem that requires me to make some phone calls and put out a fire.  I get the fire under control and zig to another meeting about something different.  I get back to my office and zag back to the first thing I started with.  And so it goes.

Here’s a sample list of a single day’s zigging and zagging.   Just to state the obvious (one more time) – the day wasn’t one of methodically moving from one thing to the next, which is what a list implies.   It was a day of pinballing back and forth and across and over and around and back again to these tasks and meetings:

  • Editing and updating the full-time faculty hiring manual
  • Drafting a formal response to a faculty complaint
  • Offering comments on a draft Bellwether award application for ACC’s OER work
  • Attending a meeting about how to trumpet more effectively (and more broadly) the benefits of the Texas A&M Chevron Engineering Academy so that we can recruit our allotted 100 students
  • Recruiting folks to participate in a “transfer self-assessment” that ACC is working on
  • Drafting the answer to one of the questions for the Leah Meyer Austin award application that ACC submitted
  • Offering advice to a dean about eStaffing issues
  • Sending off a brief description of a presentation I’m giving at the upcoming Texas Pathways conference
  • Offering advice to another dean about a personnel issue
  • Prodding some folks about a looming deadline for gathering initial information on campus moves
  • Sending some information to the Grants Office for an addendum to the Texas Corequisite Project grant
  • Inviting a couple of faculty to attend THECB’s Star Award luncheon in November (ACC is a finalist for our Z-Degree/OER work)
  • Meeting with colleagues in IT about the infrastructure needs to support an effective early alert system
  • Etc.

Pinballing between and among and across and down and over through all of the above.  It was a typical day!

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay.  No attribution required.

Liberty to argue

When I travel, I take pictures – lots of pictures.  I take pictures of buildings and signs and lampposts and steeples and arches and flowers and a perfect espresso and quotes carved on cornerstones. And I have my desktop preferences set to rotate through my thousands of travel pictures, one at a time, so that each day I see a different picture from my journeys.

Today’s picture was of this quote:  “Give me liberty to know, to utter and to argue freely according to my conscience, above all other liberties.”  Milton

Here’s the picture that’s serving as today’s desktop decoration. 

Milton had it right, didn’t he?  We are sorely in need of greater understanding and acceptance of the liberty to argue freely according to our understanding.  I would add, of course, that we should also argue respectfully, which also seems to be lacking these days.

Isn’t that one reason we work at an institution of higher education?  To foster the ability to “know, to utter and to argue freely according to [one’s] conscience”?

I believe that education is the key to a good life.  It is the key to a thriving economy, to creativity and innovation, to an engaged citizenry, to a functioning democracy, to acceptance of differences – but most importantly it is the key to liberty.  So when I spin and churn at work, when I go from a meeting about a new initiative to hearing a complaint from a faculty member to writing a report about another initiative to responding to an argumentative email, I do it because I believe in the power of education to change things for the good.  And yes, I believe fervently in liberty, including the liberty “to argue freely [and respectfully] according to my conscience”.  And I expect that you do too.


Football in Texas, like politics, is a contact sport.  Love it or loathe it, the sport involves the physical impact that one player (a defensive tackle, for instance) can have on another (the running back, for instance).

While football is all about physical force and impact, what we do in our work  at ACC is about a different sort of force and impact.  Here is a nice article from the Austin American-Statesman about a football player at LBJ (middle linebacker Lamael Hicks) that illustrates my point.  

When asked which of his high school courses would benefit him the most after graduation, Lamael replied this way:

“I would say the Early College Program, which allows students like myself to enroll into (Austin Community College) and get a chance to earn college credits while still taking high school classes at the same time.”

When asked about his future plans, Lamael had this to say:

“I’ll be going to a four-year university and major in wildlife biology and minor in architecture.”

Early College High Schools – like football – are all about intentionally directed force and impact.  We enter into partnerships with area high schools that serve students who are less likely to go to college.  The goal is to reduce barriers to college access and support greater equity in pursuing the benefits of a postsecondary credential.  We all believe that education is the doorway to a good and fruitful life.  And our work in Early College High Schools is one illustration of that belief.

Raise a glass to the impact of education.  And wish Lamael luck in his pursuit of his dreams.