Confused at a higher level

The view from Carleton College's physics department

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Deaning 201

Posted by Arjendu on February 19, 2011

I’m sure this is burned into your memory because you read this blog so carefully, but I’d said back there somewhere at the start of my Dean-blogging that apart from the day-to-day work in deaning, there were some larger projects I was involved with for the sake of the college’s bottom-line.

One of these projects was to help with most efficiently saturating the physical capacity of the college. We have fluctuations in on-campus enrollment due to all sorts of factors and it would be nice to try to make most efficient use of them by spreading this enrollment evenly over the three terms. Many of these factors are small and uncontrollable but somewhat statistically predictable (illnesses, withdrawals, transfers out, accelerated graduation, students choosing to go to non-Carleton off-campus programs …), and some are more controllable (Carleton off-campus programs). I oversee the Off-Campus Studies program, whence my involvement.

So, my physicists model of this was that we have some ‘signal’ (a somewhat controllable knob on our off-campus programs) and lots of ‘noise’ (all the random things we can guesstimate but hardly predict deterministically) while helping steer towards a smooth enrollment. My role mostly consisted of laying out the case — and making encouraging noises about their work — to the Off-Campus Studies Office at Carleton, and particularly its director, Helena Kaufman, as well as to the Off-Campus Studies Committee as they went about their business of approving programs and constructing the calendar.

The current projected numbers for the next academic year are based on processes that got rolling a couple of years ago, and involve the cooperation of a lot of the noise. With those caveats (and the consequent disclaimer of credit), the really good news is that the projections for the next academic year are that it’s going to be remarkably smooth. (And yes, I am being weasel-y on the numbers, in case these are trade secrets somehow). It’s a long haul yet to keep it this smooth, but it’s a good start, and a satisfying feeling — because this is good news for Carleton.

This particular feeling also helps me re-articulate for myself why I said ‘yes’ in the first place to doing this job: Carleton (like the rest of academia, really) is going through ‘interesting times’ mostly related to the finances and I was asked if I wanted to step up to the plate to help steer through the choppy waters. And it’s been high stress on the project management and people management side, sure (no kidding!) and you’ve got to forgive me (a) a little ego in the possibly misplaced (albeit cautious) confidence that I can indeed contribute, and (b) some personal stuff in the desire to explore¬† the self-stretching of being the immigrant/outsider who gets to inhabit/color the insider perspective. I’ve been at Carleton almost a decade and I’ve learned more about the enterprise of liberal arts colleges in the last year than I had conceived existed, and it still makes my head spin until I retreat to the safety of thinking about open nonlinear quantum systems to breathe a big breath of physics relief. But I do get it at the fundamental level — I get why this job is so crucial, how and why I can contribute, and so far like being part of the team here. And it’s nice to have some good news to report.

Onward through the fog!

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