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Ask a Community College Dean: How Accurate Is Community?

For a certain set of TV viewers, the phrase “community college dean” immediately evokes an image of Community’s Jim Rash, probably dressed as Scarlett O’Hara, a giant bumblebee, or something equally ridiculous, given the many wardrobe larks the actor’s enthusiastic but wildly incompetent administrative character, Craig Pelton, has taken over the years. But outside of the fictional Greendale, Matt Reed may be the best-known community college dean. In 2004, Reed began channeling his professional frustrations into the anonymous blog Confessions of a Community College Dean, which became a popular destination for higher-education types. A little over a year ago, he outed himself as the vice-president for academic affairs at Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts and has now published his first book. Reed was also a “very faithful” Community watcher until “the gas-leak year,” a.k.a. the sitcom’s Dan Harmon–less fourth season. Although the real-life administrator does not “i-dean-tify” at all with Pelton, he agreed to speak with Vulture about Community, and discuss the parallels between Greendale and the modern community college experience.

What were your first impressions of Community, as someone who's in that world?
It has very little to do with my daily reality. Dean Pelton is not a role model, to put it delicately. What the show gets right is that the students really are diverse, and mostly older. It's not all 18-year-olds.

Is Community something that deans now make reference to? Does it ever come up in conversations with students or other administrators?
Almost never. It did for about the first month it was on, and since then, I would really have to work hard to come up with an instance of it coming up. As of the paintball episode, it became so far removed from community college life. [Laughs.] I mean, it was brilliant, but it had nothing to do with what we do.

The value of a community college education is the butt of a lot of jokes, on and off the show. What are the people who make the jokes not getting?
I think they're not getting the whole transfer function. People understand it as remedial and they understand it as workforce development, and those are both very real things. But there's also a real strong transfer function. Every single year we send graduates to Cornell and Amherst and Mount Holyoke and Smith — it's at the core of what we do. I think that often gets missed, because people think, Well, if it's easy to get into, it must be easy to get out of. It is easy to get into; that part's true. [Laughs.] I'm not even gonna pretend on that part. But, we send transfer students on to highfalutin places, and they do very well there.

Of the characters on Community, who's the one who most resembles your student body?
Most of them do, except for Pierce. They took some liberties with Pierce. [Laughs.] We don't get a lot of millionaires. It would be lovely if we did, but we don't. We do get the 40-year-old mom who decides to do a career shift [like Shirley].

One thing that we see often on Community is Dean Pelton's extreme cost-cutting methods, like serving army-surplus rations at a school event. What is the most extreme thing you've seen a dean do to cut corners?
I think I'd better plead the fifth on that one. Might be dangerous for me to answer that. I will say that most colleges now privatize their food service. So the whole idea of army rations for food? No, we have Subway. And that was a revenue decision made years ago, but also, the food got better. I guess the really obvious cost-cutting measure is so many adjunct [part-time] professors. That's largely about cost, and that's a real problem. [Note: Greendale had its own Subway franchise in season three.]

Have you ever worn costumes for school events?
I personally have not, unless you count graduation. On Halloween, some deans do. But it tends to be things like, they'll dress up as a Red Sox player.

If a dean started coming to their job dressed in Dean Pelton–style costumes, would there be administrative action?
No, I think the first thing would be to pull them aside and say, "What are you doing?" I don't think they'd go immediately to some sort of sanction. I think it would more be like concern. "Wow, Kim is dressed like a Dr. Seuss character — that's not like Kim. What's up with Kim?" And then someone would pull Kim aside and say, "What's going on? Did you lose a bet? Is this a cry for help?" But I have not seen anything like that.

Is there any joke or reference from Community that resonated with your actual life?
The one that made me laugh out loud in recognition was early on. It was, I think, a biology class, and Jeff's phone was set to vibrate, but it vibrated really, really loudly. Like, first it rang and he apologized and he set it to vibrate, and the vibrate was really loud, so he had to apologize again. That was about right. But none of the more silly stuff. It's a fun show but it's got nothing to do with what we do. It's like in that 8-bit episode: We're not 8-bit.

* Thanks to ever-vigilant commenters, we've removed the erroneous question about Greendale's rival school.

Photo: Charles Christopher/NBC