CATALYST v23n2 - Opinion Piece: What It's All About: Raising Cows and Keeping Secrets

Volume XXIII, Number 2
Spring 1993

What It's All About: Raising Cows and Keeping Secrets

David A. Wells
Dean of Community Services
Tarrant County Junior College

What this job is all about is raising cows and keeping secrets. Right?

Isn't our job as deans and directors of Continuing Education simply to get successful programs out there before the public, enroll more than enough students to recover the cost, and make some extra money? Reduced to its lowest common denominator, isn't that it? I mean, we can go on philosophizing forever about meeting the needs of people and the community and (drum roll, Maestro, if you please) serving mankind. But in the final analysis, the success of our programs is based on bodies and bucks. Given this attitude, a program that generates extra dollars and enrollments for contact hour funding (if you have it) is really everything we need to demonstrate success. Our business is about the care and feeding of these cash cows.

Do you really believe that? I sometimes think that many of our peers in the academic world believe it to be strictly true of the activities of Continuing Education programs. From their perspective, the efforts of a CE program may be just that: a money-making sideline of the college; an auxiliary mechanism, an enterprise like the bookstore. Are we, as T.S. Eliot characterized J. Alfred Prufrock, "an easy tool, / Deferential, glad to be of use, / Politic, cautious, and meticulous; / Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse...." Do your peers at the college believe this of you and the program you work in? If they do, my guess is, it is because you allow them to perceive you in this fashion to protect something you don't much talk about.

Just for a moment, lets take a look at ourselves. Yes, we do measure programs in terms of the students and dollars they generate. The best-attended sessions you will encounter at the NCCSCE annual conference and other similar conferences will be those telling you how to make a buck. For our personal well-being and our program's continued operation, it is in our best interest to have these "cash cows." But we are not alone in this interest. Credit programs have their herd as well. Freshman English, your state's history classes, freshman psychology, or introductory speech or sociology are classes that traditionally have a low expense/high income ratio. The dean of instruction has to support a humanities program that might not pay its way, for instance, because almost no college would be caught without one. We are all familiar with this symbiotic relationship in the academic world: we all talk about cash cows and humanities in the same breath. We all have our cash cows, we all need them, and we all talk about them. But in Continuing Education programs what we don't talk much about is the fact that they allow us to keep secrets.

What you won't see mentioned at this Council's annual conference, what you won't see as a part of your annual presentation to your board of trustees, what you won 't see in the program presented to your local chamber of commerce are some of the activities that we as CE professionals are proudest of. In this organization, what you probably won't see are programs telling of the success of the sign language classes--which, even though they lost money last year, helped people deal with deafness in the world, helped workers understand deaf co-workers, helped a deaf parent "talk" to a child, or helped a deaf child "hear" the words of a parent. What you won't see are the sessions about losing money because you added a class at the last minute in December because five medication aides were going to lose their jobs unless they completed their state-required continuing education classes before the end of the year, and you really needed 10 students just to pay the adult literacy levels and let make with two people when you really needed 12 just to break even, but you made it anyway, and hoped no one ever checked your books closely enough because you were quite sure you could never explain it well enough to please them. And besides, if anyone else knew you did that, it might spoil the image you have worked so hard to create of yourself--that risk-taker, entrepreneur, tough guy, continuing educator out there scrabbling for bodies and bucks.

Come on! Who do you think you're fooling? Some of our finest moments come out of programs we never talk about. Some of our greatest successes rise from the ruins of our most devastating failures. We keep these little bright spots to ourselves, and maybe we should. If we talk about these too much, someone may come around and start telling us how we should be managing that money, or that class, or that program. We know we can 't solve the problems of the world. We know that we can impact only certain things. But we know, too, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there are some things in our power to do to-- what did I say at the beginning of this--to "meet the needs of people and the community, and (yes, Maestro, if you please, yet another drum roll) to serve mankind." We know what we can do, and when we should do it, and given the chance, we do.

But our board, or our chancellor, or our president needs to hear something about our secrets once in a while. Timing, however, is critical, and so is the measure of what we give. It's a little like salt in soup. Too much is bad, but just a touch is nice. Continuing Education folk are an odd lot. We need to know that we, and programs we work with, are not just automatons analyzing expenses and profits and making calculations and tossing away things that don't fit. We need to know that at any point in that entire process of programming and management, we can reach in and pull something struggling for air to the top and let it breathe, or that we can influence our leaders to. We need to know that we can make the program human and humane. The board, or the chancellor, or the president, or your boss needs to know that, too. Not that you are being reckless or careless, or irresponsible, but that the program--and by extension, the college --has compassion.

No, the job is not as simple as I described it in the first paragraph. It has those characteristics about it, but it also has about it a humanity that only you and your staff can add. The people you work with can help humanize your program. I've made some programs that lost money because my secretary told me the people in the classes really needed the help. But the money I lost on those, I made on a cash cow somewhere else. This Council, and its publications and its conferences, are good vehicles for trading cows and for sharing information and programs and for telling secrets. I still probably don't do as much sharing of cows and secrets as I should, but I intend to do more in the future. And now that I'm thinking about it, if you know of any strays that are good producers, send them my way. You see, I'm in the business of raising cows.

In return, let me tell you a secret. It's about this group of folks from Thailand, the Philippines, and Laos who were working in a plant assembling electrical parts, but they couldn't read the blueprints, see. Well, I thought I would do a special deal for the company and, yeah, it was struggling too, so I cut my profit for the classes just to, you know, help them out. We agreed on a price, and they bought the program. Turns out, as soon as the class started, we found out it was going to cost twice as much-- the wives and parents and uncles of the employees wanted in to learn to read, and....