Emirates Education Platform

Margaret Mia


So Many Poohbahs! Poohbai? Poohbae? | Inside Higher Ed

Yesterday I asked my readers what rule they would enact for higher education in their state if they were somehow declared Grand Poohbah of Higher Education for a day. (I took the term from Howard Cunningham’s fraternal lodge on Happy Days.) The ground rules were that the rule would be permanent, it would have to be public-spirited and making oneself Grand Poohbah for life would be cheating.

Once again, my wise and worldly readers stepped up. So many poohbahs! I’m not sure what the plural should be. “Poohbai” is more fun, but probably inaccurate. “Poohbae” connotes polyamory, which is another blog altogether. One reader suggested that “Big Kahuna” was better than Grand Poohbah because it doesn’t start with “poo.” I disagree. “Big Kahuna” smacks of cultural appropriation, whereas “Grand Poohbah” is just silly. As for starting with “poo,” Winnie the Pooh is beloved by millions. I’m sticking with it.

Anyway, it’s time to let the poohbai speak. After each, my comment will be in parentheses.

If I were grand poobah of my state higher Ed agency, I would immediately remove the current priority FAFSA filing date for state grant aid. This date that occurs in mid-April each year demonstrates higher education’s historical focus on traditional undergraduate students who enter in droves in a Fall start format. This date no longer works for the many students outside (and inside) this 18-22 year old model who may decide in June or October of a given year that they want to attend college. Missing out on thousands of dollars of State grant aid because a decision timeline is missed is negatively impacting students and families.


If I could change one thing, it would be the grading system. I would have A, B, C, and I. Any student who did not satisfactorily complete a course would receive an incomplete. It would enable the student to complete the learning when they were more available. There would need to be a time limit only because learning outcomes are not static. But I think a minimum of a year would work in most fields. In short, there would be no failures, just learning not yet finished. If the incomplete expired, the grade would transition to a NC (No credit).

(This sounds a lot like competency-based education. I recommend Paul LeBlanc’s excellent Students First for a great take on this.)

In the state of Arizona, there is a law that limits government spending. This law, known as the expenditure limitation, applies to all educational institutions, including K-12, community college and state universities. Regardless of how much revenue an institution is able to bring in, they are limited on how much they can spend. As state funding has all but disappeared, property taxes tend to be the primary source of revenue for educational institutions. Often K-12 districts will go to their voters and request an override, which is sometimes approved, sometimes not. The amount of time, energy, effort, auditing, etc that is done to ensure we stay within the expenditure limitation is unmeasurable (and in my opinion, unreasonable).

(Given recent rates of inflation, this seems urgent. Big YES on this one!)

If I were grand poobah for a day, I would mandate that earning a bachelorette [sic] requires minimally four years regardless of prior credit earned in high school. Now, this is just for those young people coming straight out of high school. Some other mechanisms or processes would be needed for people who don’t fit this demographic. But, let us focus on the four years immediately after high school for those young people. Why mandate four years? A number of reasons. For one, young people coming straight out of high school would know, “it takes four years and there isn’t a fast track.” So, they might focus on the here and now and stop looking for loopholes/fast-tracks (as politicians do?). They might be more likely to consider study abroad and similar “life experiences” courses.

(I get the impulse, but I have to disagree. “One size fits all” tends to assume who “all” is. That said, I’m sympathetic to recognizing that education isn’t just transactional.)

I’d try to make it so the underlings have an opportunity to make honest comments about their supervisors, which WOULD (not could) be used to help them be better at what they do. At the institution I just retired from (in frustration), many people were moved up into their positions, but they have no idea what to do to improve the place. They probably think they are improving things. They aren’t. They don’t listen. They’ve never seen other places.

(OUCH. That said, it’s true that our profession puts markedly little emphasis on management training, then complains endlessly about managers. Hmm.)

Establish transparent salary bands (with a % limit on how far apart the band could be, that is, no bands from $15,000 to $250,000).

(I snort-laughed at the example, having seen some real-world ones that come close to that.)

My idea for a change to Illinois higher education would be called “One CC Course Free.” I would set up a program so that every Illinois resident with a high school diploma or GED qualified for one free course at their local community college. I believe there is great untapped potential for more Illinois residents to pursue higher education (in the broadest sense: career, technical, liberal arts, two-year and four-year degrees, certificates, badges, apprenticeships, the whole works). I believe that exposing more people to the learning opportunities at community colleges would attract more of them to keep taking classes.

(Sounds good to me. The key is simplicity: no means-testing, no asterisks.)

The most significant thing is to allow/encourage institutions to have the ability to offer merit bonuses or perks to strongly performing employees. Even something like a $50 Amazon gift card after a long and grueling project or initiative would be handy from a manager’s perspective. I know the private industry has this ability, and it would be nice having this option in a management toolkit to help boost morale from time to time.

(See “management training,” above. We’re missing the basics.)

If I were to command one thing to make higher Ed more responsive to the 21st century I would eliminate the math requirement. The arguments for maintaining a requirement for math at the pre calc level sound exactly like the old requirement for Latin. Dumping it entirely, or requiring it at the level of algebra, would provide the appropriate math tool. As for a philosophical argument for math, don’t get me started. Our current culture feels like we’d be better off with a requirement for logic or ethics. Or even political science :⁠-⁠)

(One guest speaker at Aspen suggested that the single most effective move available to college leaders to improve student success would be to fire the math department. He was serious. I disagree, but it’s certainly valid to ask which flavor of math makes sense for which program.)

The policy I would change in my home state is that higher education teaching faculty must be [certified], as our colleagues in K-12 are. The certification would include training in teaching for inclusivity, public speaking (some faculty are bad at this—think Ben Stein’s economics teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), creating accessible course materials, and using technology in an [pedagogically] sound way, among other topics.

(Just as most college administrators were never trained in management, most professors were never trained in teaching. It makes one wonder.)

I would add a faculty member to the boards of trustees at our regional comprehensives, as a voting member (which requires an act of the legislature).

(I don’t see this working in a collective bargaining environment. If labor is on both sides of the bargaining table, then you’ve institutionalized a conflict of interest. However, I do see the logic in having people with teaching backgrounds on boards.)

I would add the Community Colleges to the State constitution so they would have ongoing, guaranteed and unrestricted funding like the K-12 schools.


 …I would wave into existence a comprehensive means of assessing quality of life (both quantitatively/economically and, of course, qualitatively/philosophically) of our alumni five years and ten years, after graduation—rather than, e.g., merely immediate post-graduation transfer/job-placement rates.

(How hard could that possibly be? But yes, it’s true that liberal arts majors’ salaries tend to catch up with, and even surpass, many other fields’ salaries after a decade or so. Focusing only on the first job out of college distorts the picture. Assessing lives philosophically is a wee bit harder …)

I think the policy I would change is how much tax money is allocated to state-sponsored higher ed: bring it back – permanently! – to the levels it enjoyed in the 60s and 70s. It is a public good that more than pays for itself with an educated citizenry and workforce.

(I may have mentioned this one myself once or twice over the years …)

Require the receiving institutions to send the results of transcript evaluations back to the sending institution. As they email the student the results, cc: the originator of the credits. It’s a no brainer. It should be state law or a Federal requirement for institutions to qualify federal financial aid.

(This is quietly brilliant. LOVE IT.)

If I had the power I would create some position (we would need a fleet of these people) who could run interference with struggling students and gently speak the truth. Students who are chronic C at best students in difficult majors. Someone who can have the “you are not going to become a doctor at this rate” conversation. As a professor, it’s considered “mean” to tell students this. But SOMEONE needs to. And that someone needs to help those students find good alternatives. Fields that they like AND are good at. People in this job also need to be able to run interference with delusional parents. All too often I see students who are stuck as a science major because the parents insist on it. They are convinced that Johnny will be a surgeon, when he is struggling in first semester freshman Chemistry. These students graduate hating the field, with pathetic GPAs, and no real prospects as a result.

(This is tough. For the message to be enlightening, rather than devastating, it needs to come from someone trusted, and it should come with a positive alternative. How to do that at scale is an excellent question.)

I would actually stop treating it as an unfunded mandate.

(From the perspective of someone just starting out now, higher ed can certainly feel like an unfunded mandate. I’d prefer to make it a funded option.)

Clarity across all of higher ed about pathways to careers, including true costs for each path. Show multiple paths to an outcome. And understanding how to stop out or change without it feeling like a failure.

(Another one about navigating the world. And yes.)

Thank you to all of the poohbai who thought it over and took the time to write. Public-spiritedness is alive and well. It gives me hope.

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