Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Remembering the Power of Mentoring

John Gardner

So often in life we have no idea what is going on simultaneously with whatever we may be experiencing on any given day. The day after Thanksgiving is such a moment for me. On that day I drove down from my home in Brevard, North Carolina, with my wife and sister, to visit my two sons and their families, in Lexington, South Carolina, my home county for 30 years when I worked for the University of South Carolina. A lovely day was had by all. But the next day I learned that on the day before one of my most powerful mentors had died, also in the central South Carolina environs, while I was having a most relaxing day just a few miles away.

I refer to my academic dean for the period 1972-1983, when I rose through the ranks from a brand new Assistant Professor to full Professor. It was also during this period when my Dean unselfishly agreed to release me 50% time to take on my career changing role of Director of University 101. My Dean was Harry E. “Sid” Varney, and I owe much of my subsequent career success to him and his great influence on my development. So I have spent the rest of Thanksgiving weekend thinking about the power of mentoring, and his mentoring in particular. Those of us now in positions of power need to remind ourselves every day of the obligation to mentor others—every day, every opportunity.

In my case, I worked with and for this dean for the period when I was ages 28-39. My career could have gone any number of directions. I know that I was consciously looking for mentors. I will use this blog to record some of his influences, my recollections of what he taught me, that I have carried on in my own career.

·         Sid was fond of saying “John, you missed a perfect opportunity to keep your mouth shut”, but he never attempted to make me shut it before opening. Now I try to treat everyone who works for me as if they had tenure, even though they don’t.

·         Sid had not a trace of the pompous pretentiousness that some of us academics display to and about others who are less educated—which means most of the population that happen to pay our salaries.

·         Sid had far greater respect than I did for intercollegiate athletics and saw it as a powerful track for upward social mobility for the nation’s poor. His life had personified this as he moved from an inauspicious background in Pennsylvania lacking in privilege to an All-American high achieving athlete status at UNC Chapel Hill in not one but two sports: football and baseball, in the late 1940’s.

·         Sid had almost an equal sympathy for the children of the privileged who struggled to live up their parents’ expectations that they achieve on equal levels. So for years he ran a kind of shadow advising center for many of the children of the state’s elite. And many of these kids ended up getting assigned to his most sympathetic faculty, people like me, also a child of the privileged.

·         Sid taught me the power of quiet practice of a political value set, speaking rarely in public about his own politics, a closet liberal, if there ever was one. He didn’t wear his liberalism on his sleeves as I did (and do), but he was one of only a handful of voters I knew who would admit he voted for George McGovern in 1972. He was able to work with a much broader range of South Carolina leaders than I was by staying under the radar.

·         Unlike the guy whom pundits are predicting will become the Republican nominee for the Presidency this year, Sid not only had no hair, he had a consistent ideology and philosophy for his work and life. Every day. And it never changed. There was not a hint of opportunism or “idea du jour” in this man. Every day he had one mantra: do what is best for the little guy, the less powerful, privileged and educated; do what is best for the people who pay our salaries; do what is best for the people of South Carolina; the University is theirs not ours; what matters most is using the University to extend educational opportunity to as many people as possible.

·         I had never encountered anybody who seemed to derive such great pleasure from helping advance others, his former football players, students, colleagues, employees, and, of course, his wife and two sons. I observed him on countless occasions doing something to help somebody get a job. I had never seen anybody before, or since, have so much fun helping people get jobs. He deeply understood what today’s right wingers do not: the importance of jobs for all. That all work lends dignity. That most people don’t want handouts. They just want meaningful work. That the role of government (e.g. public universities) is to enhance employment opportunities and literally to do everything possible to help their students get jobs. I never saw any other higher educator work harder to get people jobs.

·         And when he wasn’t helping somebody get a job, he was helping somebody get awarded, rewarded, promoted, paid more money, advanced, in a myriad of other socially redeeming ways, all legal. I watched carefully and absorbed the enormous gratification I saw he derived from advancing others. And today it is definitely one of my greatest pleasures.

·         Sid never wanted anyone else working for him that someone else wouldn’t want working for them. So when it came time to move on, I saw him treat others as he would have wanted to be treated himself. He would help them move on even if it cost him and his unit dearly. When it came to his choosing what was best for his unit or his employees’ individual careers, he always chose what was best for them. I had never seen before such unselfishness.
·         The man was a master of affirmation. He always had the time to give others a stroke, and usually in a short, personal, handwritten note. This is particularly lacking now in the era of e-mail communication, let alone texting.

·         He taught me: “John, praise in public, and criticize in private.”

·         He took me out behind the woodshed one day because he learned I sent one of his fellow deans a memorandum on which I had not copied him. I had committed a cardinal sin: I had failed to keep my boss informed about communications I was having with his peers. I never made that mistake again.

·         Sid was always teaching me, for better or worse. He didn’t have to work at it. It was just who he was. He was my mentor, 24/7. And long after I moved on from his employ, he kept reaching out to me, letting me know he was following my career with respect and support. The job of a mentor is never done. Mentees never outgrow their need for mentoring.

·         I learned from Sid that the rest of my life should be spent in repaying the gift.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Thanksgiving 2011

John Gardner

It is Thanksgiving season for another year and so I suppose I should reflect on Thanksgiving from the perspective of my life in the academy, and from its place in the current context of our society.

I have been in my profession 44 years. And I am thankful to say that if I could do it all over again, I certainly would have:

·                     chosen the same vocation

·                     chosen to practice it where I could do educational missionary work (the American South)

·                     integrated my practice of education with the larger cause of social justice

·                     focused on low status people—both the kinds of students and educators that serve them that are very often marginalized by both society and even the academy 

Thanksgiving this year comes in the larger context of a period when we have seen:

·                     Our Congress reach new levels of dysfunctionality and the American public perception of the effectiveness of its government reach all time lows

·                     The creditworthiness of our country be downgraded for this first time

·                     The rebirth of student activism at levels not seen since the early 1970’s as in the Occupy Wall Street movement

·                     The revelation of what has become the most sensational scandal involving a university athletic program, one in which there may have been intentional ignoring and cover up of sexual abuse of children by university employees

·                     Unprecedented levels of public rationalization for greed on behalf of the wealthiest Americans

·                     A national consciousness raising of the vast declines in standards of living, the size of the middle class, opportunities for upward social mobility coupled with the notion that we are a country of 99% and 1%  in terms of access to and possession of means, power, opportunity, privilege.

So what am I thankful for?

I am thankful:

·         that I get the privilege to work with such hopeful, ambitious, energetic, creative, high energy students

·         and that I get the same kind of privilege to work with higher educators who really do care about serving students and seeing them improve their lots in life

·         that my work environment is one of academic freedom, coupled with a high degree of personal autonomy

·         that my occupation is still respected by the larger public 

·         that I am in an “industry” that is in more demand than ever by the public

·         that my “industry’s” culture, while increasingly becoming corporatized, is still significantly different from that of the for-profit corporate sector and therefore more focused on human values than monetary ones

·         that my work has redeeming social value and adds value to the lives of both students and educators

·         that my work is personally gratifying

·         that my work enables me to enjoy a decent standard of living in a society where that standard is declining for the majority of my fellow citizens

I could go on. By being a practicing member of the academy I think we still have much to be thankful for, even on our worst days. And I think if we were more intentional about being aware of what we have to be thankful for as higher educators that that attitude might carry over to the students whom we are charged to serve—they deserve that. And we might feel better too.

I hope you had a satisfying Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 21, 2011

“What, Me Marry?”

John Gardner

This is not a question I am raising at all, personally. I am married, and very, very contentedly so, I am pleased is the case and to be able to report. Instead, this is the title of a highly provocative article in the November 2011 issue of The Atlantic, by a journalist Kate Bolick. It is subtitled “In today’s economy, men are falling apart. What that means for sex and marriage.”

This excellent journalistic reportage is about the extraordinary changes we are seeing in how the genders are faring in our contemporary society which is increasingly working more favorably for the highly educated and skilled, which means women more than men. I strongly recommend this piece to my readers. The title of her article conveys her thesis that as women become better educated than men, more employable than men, more likely to retain their jobs during recessions than men, earning more money than men, and able to have sex and have and raise children all without benefit of marriage, well then, why marry? Very good question.

And, as many of our students are struggling to sort out how they are going to live in a society of vastly unequal opportunities and privileges (marriage being one of them), I am sure this is a question that many of your female students especially are asking. I think you/we should be talking about this.

For years I have been concerned about the increasing differences I have observed on campuses in terms of the different ways men vs. women, literally, go to college, do college. I have been troubled not only about what I have seen but my inability to arouse much concern about this. This even starts at home. When I bring this up to my very well educated and usually sympathetic to my causes wife, I get no sympathy. Her view is that men still run the country and aren’t doing a very good job of it and don’t need any sympathy from her.

My concerns have been about such factors as these:

1.     Men are less likely to go to college

2.     When they do go to college they are less likely to be retained and graduate

3.     They are less likely to seek assistance

4.     They study less than women

5.     They enter and exit college with higher self esteem

6.     They are more likely to be involved in dysfunctional behaviors ranging from alcohol and drug abuse to vandalism of institutional property

7.     They are less likely to engage in community service

8.     They are less likely to be engaged in leadership roles in campus activities

And this is nothing new. We have been watching this take shape over the past three decades. One of the reasons the alarm bells aren’t really ringing has to be because the majority of campuses are still run primarily by men, and they just either don’t want to see this problem or deal with it if they do. Or if they do attempt to deal with it they fear they will be beaten up by feminist colleagues who will argue no sympathy for the group which is still the dominant group.

If I were still teaching a first-year seminar, I would definitely assign this article to my students. The implications from the declining societal opportunities for men have profound implications for how male and female students are relating to each other on campuses these days. We educators need to understand this better. I think that many of our students already understand this better than we do, in part, because it is having such profound effects on their social lives.

As a gross example of this, I was told this summer by an articulate cab driver in a US resort city, where there is a public regional college with a 70/30 female/male student ratio, that his best and politest customers were female college students—whom he said he liveried around on weekends as they sought out the professional services of male gigolos due to the scarcity of available males on campus. That certainly doesn’t sound like social life on campus as I once knew it. In fact, it gives a whole new meaning to the descriptor of “BMOC”, “Big Man on Campus.”

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Reflections from Italy

John Gardner

I have been in Italy for 5 days now. I do not bring good luck to countries when I travel. I was in France on 9/11. Was in Christ Church New Zealand the morning of the great earthquake. And this week I have been in Italy with my wife, Betsy Barefoot and they have had terrible floods and their political leader has been forced to announce a plan for his resignation.

We had a wonderful guide in Florence, a late 40’s or so guy with a son who had just graduated from University. The guide told me what I had been reading about already, namely, that the Italian unemployment rate for recent college graduates is running about 30 percent (much worse than in the US). And I know thanks to one of our political parties that is doing everything possible to make the economy worse in order to defeat President Obama, that the prospects for appropriate jobs for our college graduates is going to get a lot worse. As I have written before, when I graduated, I had only a very few options for life after college: work for a defense contractor, seminary, marriage, or war.  I got drafted and so the choice was made for me. And then I had to make the most of it. And I did. But given our employment prospects for our college grads, we better be teaching them in college more than what to do to earn a living. We better be teaching them to find meaning outside employment.

I met a server in a restaurant who was from Albania. Had been in Italy for 13 years, except for one year when he went to Phoenix and worked for Marriott. Can’t wait til he returns to the States. Sees us as the land where anyone can work his way up, pay little or no taxes, be free of intrusive government regulations and where the notion of upward social mobility for those who take risks and work hard is alive and well. I thought: “hey, is this the country I know?” All the data that I am reading suggests upward social mobility is now greatly constrained. And our lack of regulations brought on the great financial collapse of 2008. Interesting how long we hang on to our myths and that it takes for reality to catch up with and revise stereotypes. This applies to how long it took me to finally buy an American made car (in December 2008) which meant getting over my perception that Detroit couldn’t build a quality automobile. It can and I am delighted with my American made car.

But the big story in the week I am away is what is going on at Penn State. I have long viewed the ultimate measure of quality of life in any country tobe the concern that is extended to the welfare of its children. So here is a story where people in power had reason to believe that someone else in a position of power may have been molesting children. By the standards of post industrial societies and western democracies the US doesn’t rank well in terms of its care for the least powerful: our children—witness the dramatic rise in the number living in poverty. As I drove from Siena to Spoleto in Italy today I commented to my wife that since we had been in this country we had seen no overt signs of poverty anywhere, no matter what they are paying for interest on their bonds. Yet, paradoxically, this is the country that has given the world the largest and most powerful organization that protects adults who molest children. As I think about all my friends back home that adore their alma mater or their employer, Penn State, one of the top 32 public research universities in the country, all I know is that the institution somehow failed to pass what for me is the ultimate litmus test of a civilized society: protecting children, the least powerful, first. There is much I do not know about this sad set of circumstances, but it does appear that there were other considerations than children first. In that respect, Penn State is an allegory of the larger host country—both the one where I am a citizen, and the one where I am a guest.

Since I have been away, I have read a report submitted to me by one of our Foundations of Excellence participating institutions. The report was on how the institution was, or was not, measuring up to a standard of excellence for diversity. And I got the usual pablum that I find in American colleges and universities that “diversity” can and must be addressed by “programming” and by special sessions in orientation and bolt on components in first-year seminar courses. Sadly, I see that we treat diversity like we treat the other things in our culture that we are most uptight about: drugs, sex, religion, alcohol use, political differences. We marginalize and trivialize them and do not subject them to in-depth study and analysis. My travels this week remind me that one of the best ways to teach “diversity” is to make it possible for our students to experience it through travel and study outside the US, where diversity is the norm, life, all what matters most.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Veteran’s Day 2011

John Gardner

I am glad I am a “Vet”. That term is, of course, culturally defined in the US to describe someone who has served in the US military. I am proud to know and say I did and was honorably discharged in 1968 after a tour in the US Air Force which sent me to South Carolina and also introduced me to my career with the University of South Carolina.

In my non-profit organization, we celebrate and recognize Veteran’s Day as it is now called (as opposed to our original name – “Armistice Day” which signified the signing of the armistice which brought the killing to a halt in World War I on November 11, 1918—even though technically I am the only “veteran” in the organization. But without that experience there would be no such organization as it was the military which brought me this career.

I am glad I am a veteran because of all that I learned and experienced and especially because of the service(s) I performed. My duties were as a psychiatric social worker in an Air Force hospital. Much as I was opposed to the Vietnam War and did not want to support it, support it I did. I was one of the millions of little human cogs that kept the wheel turning. In my case, I helped keep the war machine operating—my part of it being the unarmed reconnaissance planes that flew over North and South Vietnam taking the pictures which were used to plot the bombing runs—by helping to keep the troops and their dependents functioning. And that I did.

This was also great experience in dealing with anxiety and depressive disorders, character and behavior personality disorders and sexual deviancies, that laid such a useful “foundation” for my subsequent work in the academy with mostly “normal” but some not so normal people.

When I arrived at my permanent base in SouthCarolina, Shaw AFB, in Sumter, S.C. my squadron commander called me in for reasons I did not understand (this was on January 11, 1967). He told me that he had been reviewing my “record” and said “Gardner, you have a lot of education—more than anyone in the Squadron except for the physicans.” This means that we (the Air Force) want and expect you to perform some “service.” I responded “yes sir” but did not understand what he meant by “service.” I was less than a month short of my 23rd birthday and no one had ever told me I was expected to perform “service.” I asked him for an explanation and he offered that he meant “teaching” and told me the base was “desperate” for qualified adjunct instructors to teach in the on-base college program sponsored by the University of South Carolina. So he had the Base Education Office arrange a visit for me two days later, on a Saturday because there were still Saturday classes at USC, to have my credentials reviewed. I was approved to teach six different courses, five in History and one in Sociology. And for the next several years I taught as many as five nights a week and Saturday mornings. I loved it and decided to make that my career after discharge. I am so thankful to the Air Force.

Moral of the story: how many of my readers ever say to their students “I want you to perform some service”? And if you did say it, what would you mean? What options would you give them?

Of course, the draft has long ended. Now we have only the “volunteer army” and entice the poor of our country to go and give their “all” as a form of last resort employment in a society that offers them few other opportunities.

I think that many college students would benefit from some kind of mandatory national service-as I did. What did I learn?

I learned the intrinsic value of performing service, and of its great satisfaction.

I learned that some things mattered far more than I did, for example, our country, and how we cared for others, those less fortunate.

I learned that it is the obligation of government to perform for its citizens those functions which government can perform in ways that individuals can not and that improve the quality of individual citizen lives.

I learned to live and work with a broad cross section of my fellow Americans—a range of people I would never have had such intimate contact with in my previous upper middle class home life and residential, full-time, traditional age college experience.

I learned how large, complex, hierarchal, authoritarian bureaucracies work—and don’t work—how they function rationally, and irrationally, and especially by their own immutable laws.

I learned that responsibility is the most powerful teacher. This came from my observing a culture which gave extraordinary levels of responsibility for life and property to individuals that would never have been so entrusted in the larger society.

I learned the role the US military has played in promoting upward social mobility and in advancing social justice for all minorities.

I learned that the military in a democracy must look like the people of that democracy.

I learned that even in the largest and most rigid of organizational cultures that I could make a difference, make an impact.

As my own career post the Air Force evolved, and our country simultaneously but coincidentally of course, ended the draft and thus the proportion of college educated people like myself in the military declined dramatically, I found myself constantly wondering what kind of experiences I could recommend to my students that would provide for them comparable value to what I had gained from my own military service.

Again, the bottom line for me is that had not a person in authority said to me “Gardner, we believe in having people like you perform service”, I probably never would have discovered this profession where I have made a difference. That “person in authority” was an African-American male, the first person of a race and ethnicity other than my own that I had ever “reported” to. That experience in and of itself was a lesson in democracy.

What is the one thing that you my reader might be able to say to a college student that could turn the direction of the student’s life in some new direction characterized by socially redeeming value?

I savor each Veteran’s Day and remind myself anew what all this means to me.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Inspiration from Private Enterprise

John Gardner

Earlier this year I happened to comment in a presentation that I was about to depart with my wife, Betsy Barefoot, for a two week vacation out of the United States and that I would be taking a vacation also from my blogging.  In response to my reporting such a member of the audience admonished me not to stop blogging during this period. Feeling both complimented and chastised, I agreed to keep checking in with a few postings. Once I did this and arrived in my countries of destination (Australia and New Zealand) I realized that I had an obligation to keep writing and therefore I began to imagine myself as a reporter. Now with that as a context, my wife and I have just left the US again on a short, 10 day vacation, this time to Italy. And I am again reminded that I need to act as a reporter.

So, from that perspective, when we arrived for the first time ever in Italy, in the business and fashion capital of the country, Milan, we checked into a Hyatt Hotel. My experience with such chain hotels in the US did not prepare me for my check in experience in Italy. After duly registering, providing passports for copying, etc, and completing the registration process, the desk agent who checked us in announced that she would now show us to our  room. And to my acculturated amazement, she escorted us to an elevator, to our room, and demonstrated all the features of the room. After she departed and left us to our own devices, I just couldn’t get the check in experience out of my mind.

So what is the moral of this story? Well, it is, it would appear that sometimes the good old free enterprise system knows how to make new arrivals feel more welcome than we do in the academy. And another moral of the story is that first impressions of the arrival in a new land are lasting and therefore terribly important. And another one is that the check in experience can totally redefine how the participant views the organization providing the check in. And still another one is that when an employee of the organization steps beyond the boundaries of what you assume are the normal parameters of services to be provided, it can and does leave an enormously favorable impression.

So what if the next time we provided a student with some basic form of information, perhaps a referral, and then instead of leaving it at that, we literally walked the student through the next steps, really extended ourselves, did more than we had to? I predict that the impact could be far greater on the student than it was demanding of us in terms of the time and energy we invested.

So think about it: how can you improve your “check in” of students when they arrive for the first time on your doorstep seeking some kind of assistance?

I am not saying “run your college/university like a business. That is not the mantra I aspire to. But I am asking what we can learn and perhaps emulate from those parties we observe who are the best at making students feel noticed, welcomed, significant and who are especially good at going that beyond expectations extra step that has such a lasting impression.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Fall: That Special Season for Beginnings and Endings

John Gardner

Last week was Halloween for the external culture and for the internal higher ed culture: it was midterms. When I started college it was 13 years before the Buckley Amendment to the Privacy Act. Those were the halcyon days for college officials who could and did send home midterm grades to parents of students like me. This was a motivational strategy. And my first grades were terrible: 3 F’s, 2D’s, and 1A (physical ed — I was a varsity athlete). When my advisor personally handed my mid-term grade to me he told me: “Gardner, you are the stupidest kid I have ever advised!” I didn’t know what I was going to do about those grades but I knew I had to do something about getting another advisor. Which I did. My old advisor went on to become a college president in Texas. My new one got me through college. I owe him a great deal, and I told him so repeatedly before he died.

But both pre and post that modification of the Privacy Act, this has always been a special period for college students to focus on beginnings and endings.

It seems that for most of my life, I have been “beginning” something in the fall: when I started nursery school, K-12, college, graduate school.

I was inducted into the US Air Force in an October.

And sometimes ending something in the fall: I finished my Air Force tour of duty (as a psychiatric social worker) in an October.

I started my full-time college teaching career in fall. And I started at the University of South Carolina which was my true career shaper and shaker, in the fall.

And I started with my wife, Betsy Barefoot, our current non-profit higher ed “corporation” in October of 1999.

And that fall was also when I started living in my adopted state of North Carolina.

So my outdoor hikes in the mountains of western North Carolina on the weekends, especially in October, are a perfect period for my reflections on beginnings and endings. I am privileged to be a member of a profession that keeps getting to begin again and again, every fall and at other times too.

The fall is also a time when our students realize what they have lost, left behind, what has died (their former lives) and what Humpty Dumpty cannot put together again.

Some years ago I met at one of our First-Year Experience conferences a psychology professor from The Defiance College (OH), Dr. Davina Brown. As she let her story unfold in her session which I attended, I learned that for a number of years she had worked in a large, urban, hospital, where she had done pastoral, clinical counseling with patients and their families. As she related it, that meant dealing with people who were grieving. After a sufficient time at this she decided to leave this context for her practice and sought a more “normal” population to work with—which she thought would be traditional aged college students who would not be into grieving. Wrong. Think again.

So she took a job on the faculty at this college which had a first-year seminar which required the students to keep a journal. Because she was a new and untenured faculty member she was required to teach this course. She told us how it didn’t take reading the journal entries for too many weeks to realize she was seeing shades of what she left behind in the Cleveland hospital: grieving. The students were writing about their lives left behind, their losses, which had not yet been replaced and regenerated by meaningful components in their new collegiate environments. I was very taken with this epiphany and asked her to write about her observations. She did so and we published her theory about the grieving process in the first year of college in our Journal of The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.

So fall is a good time for us academics to take stock of our own life mileposts. And it is a good time to ask our students to do the same as they end and as they begin.