Rapport at Risk: Interview with Dean Matt Reed

Dan:                 My next guest is someone that I have wanted to have on the show for some time. I’m in awe of the amount of work that he produces, and I’m going to guess that he may be the most widely-read college administrator in the United States. Matt Reed is the author of “Confessions of a Community College Dean,” which appears nearly daily on the website Insidehighered.com. (Laughs) Yes, I said daily. That’s impressive. He’s also the author of the 2013 book, Confessions of a Community College Administrator. Matt has been in the community college world since 2003, first as the liberal arts dean at the County College of Morris and then as chief academic officer at Holyoke and Brookdale Community Colleges.

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He’s been writing his blog for insidehighered since 2007. He received his doctorate in political science from Rutgers. You can find him on Twitter @deandad. Matt, welcome to the show.

Matt:               Thank you, Daniel.

Dan:                 Matt published a provocative piece on insidehighered.com entitled “Online Enrollment and Campus Culture,” in which he talks about what he refers to as a growing tension between serving online students and creating a campus culture that serves students, employees and the community. Matt, before we get to that article, tell us a little bit about your college and your work there.

Matt:              Sure. Brookdale is the County College for Monmouth County, New Jersey, and it’s an associate degree granting institution. We have about 11,000 credit students down from about 15,000 at its peak, very transfer focused. Monmouth County is a relatively affluent area, so we send a lot of students on to Rutgers and on to other four-year schools. Over the past several years, our classroom enrollment has been dropping quickly, but our online enrollment has actually been increasing, and that’s creating pressure in terms of teaching loads and in terms of how we allocate resources. Until recently, the online portion was small enough that it didn’t have a huge impact on culture, but the piece that I wrote was in recognition that the online piece is becoming too significant to continue to ignore.

Dan:                 And I assume the enrollment decrease that you spoke of between the 15 and the 11 was since about 2012?

Matt:               Yup.

Dan:                 Yup. It’s the same story pretty much everywhere except in areas that are truly growing substantially in population. Matt, in your article you described the tension created when the campus culture is pulled in two contradictory directions, one being onsite classes and the other being online classes. Can you describe that tension and how it’s created in your view?

Matt:               Sure. Our faculty by contract expect to have four days a week on campus. That’s the default schedule for faculty teaching, and of course our administrators and so forth are here five days a week. And by having a large presence of people, it creates a certain environment on campus. When you walk the hallways where the faculty offices are, there’s usually a certain amount of buzzing going on. People can schedule meetings because people are here. What’s starting to happen, though, as more faculty are teaching more of their courses online, they may not come in all four days. It may only be three or sometimes two. And the sort of gravitational pull of enrollment is clearly in the direction of online. So we’re starting to see an effect where more folks are coming in fewer days a week, which means there are more empty offices, there are more days when corridors are kind of empty or nearly empty.

And it creates issues in several ways. One is with the environment for students walking through. We are still primarily an onsite institution, but students take unintended messages from first impressions that they encounter, and if they walk through areas where faculty are supposed to be and they see a whole lot of closed doors and empty offices, that’s not a very welcoming impression. The other piece is in terms of shared governance and doing the business of the college. It becomes harder to schedule meetings. You’ll get a lot of, “I don’t want to come to campus just for one meeting.”

Dan:                 (Laughs) Yup, I’ve heard that one.

Matt:               Yeah. So it becomes just gathering people together becomes harder. And you know, yes, some meetings can be done by email and so forth. But what starts to happen is that you start to lose the informal interactions, the sort of hallway rapport when people just aren’t around very much if they compress their schedules to two or three days. I should say, I don’t mean every single person; I’m talking in the aggregate, but when you compress schedules to two or three days, people tend to pack those two or three days pretty solidly. And so even when they’re here, they’re distracted. And so you lose some of that informal interaction; the idea of the collegium of scholars, what Jane Jacobs described in Death and Life of Great American Cities as the sort of life of the street. You lose some of that, and I think people start to lose touch with each other. You lose some of the common culture. And we’re in that awkward phase right now where the old culture is increasingly strained. But whatever’s going to come after it hasn’t quite arrived yet. So we’re in that in-between space and it’s a very awkward space to be in.

Dan:                 Let me ask you about student retention. So you did talk about what you called the unintended messages that this sends to students. I guess I can think of two things that I’d love you to drill down on. The first is whether you just suspect that’s what’s happening or whether you’ve actually observed that students, for example, want to talk with faculty but say they’re not present. And the second is whether or not you have any data that shows that this shift is actually affecting on-ground student retention.

Matt:               It’s a tricky thing to suss out because most of our students take both onsite and online classes. So we know some people talk about online students and onsite students as if they’re two separate groups of people, but they’re mostly not, they’re mostly the same people. So it’s difficult to kind of tease out the effects that way. We have had anecdotal reports from students saying, you know, nobody’s here, and then you walk through the hallway and realize they’re right, but it’s difficult to draw a causal connection. I’d be leery of anyone who could do that confidently just because there’s so many other factors.

Dan:                 Well, how about maybe a simpler question as your online offerings have increased, I suspect that in your position you’re aware of what direction your retention is trended in. Have you noticed any correlation there?

Matt:               No, actually our retention is getting slightly better, particularly online. So it’s at that level, it’s not a crisis, but I’m more concerned about the culture of the college. In this context, and what I’m thinking of there is something like shared governance and sort of what we have, we call it college forum. Some places call it a College Senate. If people just aren’t around very much, it’s harder to have those conversations in the hallway or in the office, the informal discussions that are often either the breeding grounds of ideas or sometimes there were ideas kind of get hashed out or sort of tested. And so you start to get folks hearing things for the first time in large meetings. And when that happens, the responses tend to be sort of knee jerk and not very well thought out. And then over time there’s kind of opportunity costs to that. The caliber of conversation becomes more strained and that’s not anybody’s fault per se, but it is an effect.

Dan:                 I wonder when you describe that sort of hearing about it for the first time in a meeting that some big idea, what it makes me think of is that the dynamic I’ve observed frequently is that if two people have an excellent relationship and one of them proposes a big idea, the reception is often more charitable than if two people have a very distant relationship. And I’m wondering if there isn’t an ancillary effect where if faculty don’t have as much interaction with each other because they’re teaching online courses. Is it possible that not just the initial reception of an idea is poor because it’s the first time they’re hearing about it, but also they maybe don’t have the opportunity to develop the kinds of relationships that make those kinds of ideas more welcome in the first place.

Matt:               Exactly. It’s that sort of an informal rapport more than any single piece of information. If it’s just a matter of getting a piece of information out, email works well for if I need to tell them, you know, the faculty meeting had to move from this room to that room, see you there at 11. Email works great for that, but a lot of what we discussed, the substance, what we discuss is not discrete chunks of information. A lot of it is more theoretical, and that requires a level of comfort in conversation, a level of interpersonal trust that’s harder to build when people are not around, and much more pressed when they are around. The conversation tends to devolve to a more instrumental level and I’m concerned. I think in the absence of that higher level conversation, it’s easy to default to kind of the most vulgar and reductionist interpretations of things.

Dan:                 So for my listeners who may be in different kinds of labor environments I think what you’re describing at the school that you’re at the faculty, if they’re teaching an online course essentially simply opt in many cases, not all, probably to teach that online course from somewhere off campus, from somewhere that’s more convenient for them in the same way that the student takes it in a remote location, the teacher is teaching it from a remote location.

Matt:               There have been concerns about. You know, I mentioned at the outset, we’ve historically required folks to be on campus four days a week. That’s difficult to do when they only have two days a week of onsite class meetings. The question becomes, okay, what do I come in for? And there’s a kind of gravitational pull not to show. I suppose if I wanted to get really dictatorial, I could walk around with a clipboard and a stopwatch and try to time people in their offices. But that’s not really culturally where we want to go, nor am I convinced that that would lead to anything good. I think that would just lead to a lot of resentment. So for a while now, the online area was small enough that someone might have, we have the normal teaching load here is five courses. It’s 15 credits. So some of might have four onsite courses and one online.

And when that’s the case, it really doesn’t matter that much. But when you start to get to three and two, or two and three, and it starts to become more than one or two people, you start to see the effects. So if you have any sociologists listening or political scientists listening if you think that I’m echoing Robert Putnam’s argument in Bowling Alone, you’re kind of right. There’s a rapport that comes with sustained presence that I think is at risk. Anyone who’s been online for any length of time has had the experience of being what we call “flamed” – viciously attacked because people are much more willing to be vitriolic and nasty behind a screen than they are to your face. So I’m concerned that as we’ve replaced a lot of face time with screen time, the caliber of conversation can quickly devolve.

Dan:                 Fascinating. What do you see might lie ahead? You began your article by stating that you don’t actually have a view on the subject. I should point out to the readers that in the article you’re sort of just raising this flag. You’re just saying, here’s what you’ve observed. What has the response to the article been and has it helped you form a view?

Matt:               A lot of head scratching? I don’t want to say I don’t have a view. What I mean is I don’t have an answer that I end with, and therefore the answer is because I don’t know what the answer is. I’m old enough to remember, you know, every time a new technology comes along or a new mode of interaction you have the folks who’ve been there a while wringing their hands and proclaiming the death of western civilization. So I don’t want to necessarily go that route. Online has its appeal and serves a purpose. Having said that, I don’t think we’ve yet found the equivalent in the online world for the kind of informal collegial interaction, which is separate from saying… some people misunderstood the article. I got some responses saying, “but my online classes are just as interactive as my onsite classes,” to which my response is well, that’s not the point. The point is the collegial interaction, the interaction that happens in the department or between departments on a campus starts to fade. Even if you’re teaching the world’s most interactive online course, and I hope you are, that’s only with students, that’s not with colleagues.

Dan:                 Well I think the point that you just made as a fascinating one about how the interaction between a faculty in the online age has not been replaced by something. So when I picture the course delivery systems, the online course delivery systems, over the years they’ve obviously become more and more sophisticated, and they are what I would probably describe as a better and better and more involved and more engaged experience for students, if the teacher makes full use of the tools that are available in the online system. But at the same time, there’s very little corresponding software tools that the faculty, or faculty and staff, might be using to communicate with each other. There’s some new things, but for the most part the use of email seems pretty much the same to me now as it was five years ago.

Matt:               Yeah. And I should clarify, when I say faculty, I don’t only mean faculty, right? It does include staff and administration, the campus community more broadly. It’s those informal interactions, the watercooler interactions or the sort of hanging out in someone’s office and talking about, you know, Game of Thrones or something. That’s the part that we lose and I haven’t seen what’s going to replace it yet. Now it may be there’s something and I hope it’s something good, but we’re in that weird space where we see what we’re losing, but we don’t yet see what we’re gaining.

Dan:                 Is it possible that, well, I guess, how do I describe this? I’m picturing a spiral in which the phenomenon you’re describing eventually drives away students from the on ground environment, presumably then driving them toward the online environment. That demand then drives teachers toward the online environment. And so what you may be describing is the evolution of the feel of higher education that would have occurred in any case. I guess, I think to myself, why do we think that higher education will be immune from the exact same transformation toward the online platform that everything else, from shopping to tax filing to everything else, has moved toward, you know, due to ordinary, well, I guess market forces.

Matt:               Yes. But I think there’s a caveat to that. My son is a freshman in college now. He’s at University of Virginia. And when we were looking at colleges, I remember I went on some of the tours with him, which was really fun. And when we were touring the University of Michigan, I remember asking the tour guide, does Michigan offer online classes? And she kind of looked at me funny and said, well no. Like it was a ridiculous question. And I asked the similar question to some of the other places. We went to some of the more exclusive places and I got the same answer. There’s an increasing, I think, split along sort of social class lines that in-person interaction, interpersonal human interaction is coming to be seen as kind of a class prerogative that the elites will still do the traditional way, and online is kind of for everybody else, which concerns me.

Again, I’m a booster of online when it comes to a lot of the affordances that it offers, but I am concerned that every so often I’ll ask a student who’s complaining about a schedule, you know, why don’t you take something online? And some of them will say something to the effect of, no, I want a real class, which I think is fascinating. There’s still that sense that there’s the real class and then there’s something else. Our online classes are getting better and I hope they get better still, but I am a little bit concerned that when the elite places won’t touch it with a 10 foot pole and we are being pushed towards it, what’s going on there?

Dan:                 I have to say, you know, that when you point that out, what occurs to me is a recent conversation that I had with the president of an elite college that is now beginning to offer online courses for the first time. And the reason why they’re offering them is out of sheer necessity. They demonstrated to their faculty that students were taking intercession online classes elsewhere. So they’d go away for the holiday break, they’d take an online class and they would simply transfer it back to the elite college, which had to take it. It was costing cumulatively the elite college a ton of money, and of course presumably producing less teaching opportunity for faculty, less need for classes at the elite school. And so finally the school caved in and began to offer online courses. I’m not sure how that fits with that schism that you envision between sort of privileged people taking on ground courses and everyone else taking online. But my worry is that between what I’ve described and what you’ve described, we will ultimately end up with an in-person college experience being a sort of boutique experience.

Matt:               Yeah, I’m concerned about that. You mentioned the intercession thing. We definitely get that. We do a two-week intersession in January and we get a significant number of visiting students, many of whom take online classes. That absolutely does happen and it makes sense being in the Northeast. As you remember, January classes, you’re risking snow days, and online tends to be immune to snow days. So there’s definitely an appeal there. It’s funny though – on campus we have programs that lend themselves to online very clearly and I’m thinking here if a lot of more theoretical courses, but we also have automotive tech and we have culinary, we have things that nursing, we have things that require a physical presence. It creates a cultural clash to some degree between those areas. If we were to loosen up the requirement for days of the week based on online, then I’m going to have folks in areas that don’t have online and can’t do online start to raise some questions too. And understandably. I guess what I’m stuck on is I feel a little bit like, I don’t know if you remember this, but in the early two thousands Blockbuster Video briefly tried to do both in-store and online rental and it didn’t work. And I can’t help but wonder if we’re in a similar position that we’re trying to do both traditional and this new tech and it’s hard to do both well at the same time. Southern New Hampshire university has been wildly successful doing both, but it does them separately. It has a pretty little New England campus in Manchester, New Hampshire that’s very traditional. And then it has a purely online division that has no overlap with the onsite campus. And so it’s really two different colleges. Three, if you count College for America. We don’t have the resources to do that. We don’t have enough faculty and staff and support to just duplicate. So we’re trying to do both simultaneously. And for a while that was fine because online was sort of small and it could be treated as a kind of extra, but it’s becoming bigger and it’s starting to make demands of its own and we are not used to that, and we’re struggling.

Dan:                 Well, I wondered if your enrollment in on-ground courses is decreasing, then maybe this is not an issue that actually arises, but I’m really wondering if the resources necessary for online are increasing and enrollment in on-ground is decreasing. I’m just wondering what kind of conversations occur on campus when you’re talking about actual new physical facilities. Now in your case, since most of the students who are online are also taking on ground courses, maybe the tension between the resources needed for online and paying for an a new facility is not there, but I’m just wondering, do people raise the issue of creating a physical facility when the school appears to be moving toward a more and more virtual environment?

Matt:               I think we’ve opened our last new physical facility for a while, and that’s fine given enrollment decline. I think the argument for building is somewhat difficult unless it’s very specialized. We still renovate, but we’re not really adding space. The question does come up. We have a number of off-campus locations where we’ve taught courses in places that are longer drives from the main campus. A lot of those were established in the 90s and the argument then was access for folks who are half hour or more away. We got to keep in mind, New Jersey is legendary for its traffic. It can be a challenge to get here. So by teaching classes and other locations, we were able to conquer distance and it appears that online has been eating into the enrollment at those sites, which sort of makes sense. So now we’re starting to ask questions about how many sites are sustainable. And that’s difficult because every site is in some legislator’s district. It’s a challenge. On the one hand, you know, you don’t want to turn your back on a community or be perceived as doing that, but you can’t sustain as many locations when you’re onsite enrollment keeps slipping.

Dan:                 Fascinating. Matt, this has been a very thought-provoking conversation. I’ve enjoyed it a lot. I hope that you’ll revisit this issue on your blog. My guest has been Matt Reed, who is the author of the blog, confessions of a community college Dean, which appears on the website inside higher ed.com. You can find him on Twitter @deandad. Matt, thank you so much for joining us today. I’ve enjoyed the conversation thoroughly and I’ve learned a lot. I appreciate your time.

Matt:               Thank you, Daniel. It was fun.

For readability, transcript has been slightly edited from the original.

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