Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Another View of The Great Recession: A More Detached View Most Cannot Afford, Some Upsides

Partially as a result of my good fortune of having been born a child of privilege; but more so as a result of my own hard work and good luck too, I can afford a more detached and sanguine view of the “Great Recession.” In this respect too I am very different from most of our students who have suffered greatly along with their families in this recession. I am struggling to find some upside in this terrible societal upheaval. Here’s how my thinking goes:
  • The biggest movements forward in the past half century to improve success of new students were born in crisis such as
 Civil rights movement which led to the Higher Education Act of 1965 and Title IV to provide federal financial aid finally making higher education possible for millions of Americans
 Anti-war movement which led to the establishment of the University 101 course at the University of South Carolina in 1972 and then ultimately an international movement urging higher education to pay more attention to “freshmen”
 The recession and demographic declines of numbers of traditional aged college students in early 1980’s which were catalysts for taking more steps to enhance student retention. The declining number of students also partly explained the great response to the Freshman Year Experience conference series which I began in 1982
 And now, the convergence of forces that led to results of Nov 08 elections, the financial collapse, etc.
  • This is a really humdinger of a crisis. What an opportunity to reengineer
 most important societal transition since the civil rights landmark transitions of 1964 and 65
 again war is a catalyst for social change, fueled this time by additional factors such as massive economic upheaval and a populist revolt against three decades of redistribution of wealth
 for a second time we have elected an ivy league grad, young intellectual of a minority group, who is engaging in precedent setting behaviors to change societal perceptions of what minority members can and cannot be and achieve
 everything now on the table—can expect massive resistance to change, e.g. health care reform—we are all going to have to decide which side we are on
 so many of our institutions and systems have broken down: the schools, foreign policy, the banking system, the credit rating system, the real estate and home financing system, student lending industry, and health care
 future areas of emphases appear to be those most closely aligned to what higher education can best support: education, health care, the environment, alternative energy sources, foreign service and diplomacy as opposed to military intervention, social and public service
 more attention to be paid to the needs of the poor
 more legitimacy given to Affirmative Action
 increased financing to make higher ed more affordable and accessible (e.g. pending legislation to end subsidies to lenders to make more money available directly to students);
 probable redistribution of wealth through revision of tax code
 more growth of government regulation and accountability (e.g. through USDOE and regional accreditors)
 who is in the White House has always mattered and will continue to influence what students want to major in
 huge projected increase for performance of national service
 hopefully less demonizing of illegal immigration and more steps to embrace and assimilate immigrants
 more support for basic science and use of empirical data as a basis for public policy rather than ideology
 the President is asking Congress to adopt public policy to drive more students to start in two-year sector and hence more demand for transfer opportunities; and President Obama is asking Congress for 12 billion dollars to enhance our community colleges.
 increased demand to be more able to finish in former two-year sector, what I am calling the “comprehensive college” sector
 more outsourcing of the first college year to the two-year sector
 demands to reduce cost and time to degree completion rates which makes the demand for three year BA inevitable

1. All of this suggests to me the time is ripe for expanded efforts on student success.
2. There are enormous opportunities and needs for a reengineered higher education.

~John N. Gardner

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Gift of Self

The “season of giving” has me thinking about gifts. And “giving” is one of those potentially hot button words for academics in their own world of the culture wars. “Giving” at best is loaded with ambiguities.

Unfortunately, with reference to faculty/student relationships and interaction patterns, “giving” as in faculty “giving” students something too often connotes students receiving something from professors that students don’t deserve, especially grades, or other “favors” or acts of dispensation. The term “giving” has come to mean a kind of lowering of academic standards. I regret that the concept of faculty “giving” to students has taken on such negative connotations, other than “giving lectures.”

In my own experience in teaching thousands of students in South Carolina over my 32.5 years there of active teaching employment, I had countless opportunities to run into my students, often years after I had taught them. It was easy to do that. South Carolina is a small state, relatively, about four million people. The state is one big happy family reunion. And most of my students, wanted to remain in South Carolina after college, even if they hadn’t originally come from there.

Whenever I would run into my former students they would regale me with stories, recollections, anecdotes about what I had “given” them: lots of homework; challenging exams; required newspaper reading of foreign newspapers such as The New York Times; writing assignments based on the belief that yes, they could indeed write even if they hadn’t been asked in high school to write; interesting field trips; outside of class assistance during office hours; “northern” and other “liberal” attitudes and beliefs; perspectives on US politicians that they would never hear at home; attention; support; friendship; concern; empathy; and for some smaller classes, a group dinner in my home.

Eventually, I figured out what the consistent theme was that they were giving me in their feedback. What they remembered most was that I had given them myself: the gift of self. They could and did recount all kinds of ways that I had given myself to them, and simultaneously held them to high and exacting standards which they came to appreciate.

On one occasion, I ran into former student whom I had taught one summer in Upward Bound, when he was about 16. I met him 25 years later after he had graduated from college and medical school and returned to Columbia, S.C. as a family practice physician. He told me that before he took my class in Upward Bound, circa 1971, that no high school teacher had ever given him a writing assignment (SC public schools were not racially integrated until 1970 and hence he was a product of a de jure segregated school system where it was assumed that African American students had no need to learn to write). His feedback was that I was the first “teacher” who believed he could write and that he had any ideas worth writing about. And until that time, he had not believed he could write, or had anything worthy to say in writing.

I came to realize that it was much more likely that my students would remember me as a person, my gifts to them, than the cognitive information I was teaching at the time.

The end of the calendar year is a great time for resolutions. I hope you will think more consciously about what gifts you are giving your students. What gifts do you want your students to remember you for? Resolve to be more intentional about giving those gifts in 2010. This is something entirely under your control, unlike many aspects of faculty-student relationships which involve things not totally under our control. Consider the possibilities. They are virtually (no pun intended) unlimited.

John N. Gardner

Monday, December 21, 2009

How is “change” affecting our students? Oh, in just a few ways!

Come to think of it, this question would make a great brainstorming activity! I was recently asked this question by a staff member at my publisher, Bedford/St. Martins: “How is change affecting today’s college students.” This is what I told her.

1. Students are incurring more debt to attend college (but taking on debt correlates with degree attainment = better living through debt)

2. More and more students are having college plans disrupted by change in parents income status due to recession

3. Working more hours while attending college

4. Part-time jobs even harder to find due to recession

5. Stress levels increasing for students and families

6. Students use of counseling services at an all time high

7. More students than ever are attending more than one college to attain a BA degree (over 60%). The transfer phenomenon is now normative.

8. More and more students are “swirling” meaning they simultaneously attend more than one institution

9. The demand for higher ed has never been greater (due to the recession—the old jobs without college training are gone, gone, gone)

10. Much greater competition to get into the majors/fields of choice: e.g. health care fields

11. Biggest growth “change” area of enrollment patterns is dramatic increases in community college and proprietary school enrollments

12. Median age of students attending open admissions institutions is plummeting

13. More and more students can no longer afford the residential college experience; so biggest gains in enrollment are in commuter student populations.

14. Students know that employer recruitment visits to campus career centers are down, down, down.

15. Students know that the government is hiring so public service jobs are more attractive than ever; also these are the only jobs left in America with defined benefit pension plans

16. Students know it is going to take a long time for the job market to improve so many are planning to pile on more debt and just go straight to graduate school

17. Other students are planning to get off the rat race, chill out, and delay entry into full adulthood

18. The military is still the employer of last resort but standards even for it are now more competitive, except for the infantry

19. More and more “veterans” will be starting or returning to college

20. Growth rates will all be dominated by formerly “minority” status students

So, have students had enough change lately? You bet. No wonder some of them do things to try to blow this off, or ignore it. But most can’t even afford to do that. What would be on your list, missing from mine?

-John Gardner

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

‘Tis the Season: For Engaging Our Students in Taking Stock

The December holidays are soon upon us and we are finishing up our academic terms with our students. What an unfortunate combination of the most intense of academic calendar pressures combined with all the cultural pressures that the holiday season evokes. Studying for exams, shopping, gift buying, going even more into debt, indulging in even more social activities; this all piles up. In this case, we did have a much better idea back in the 60’s when most academic terms ended in January so that students could study over the December holidays and return to college in January with a few more weeks to get it all together before finals without the distractions of the December solstice.

This raises a question, and an opportunity, for those of us who work directly with students. The question: how can we work with our students to use the end of the term/end of the calendar year/the emotional holiday period, to take stock of their lives? The opportunity: this is a fine time to take stock; help them benchmark their lives with December’s past, set goals for the New Year and the spring academic term.

I always urge my students to remember that it is not too late to try to pull the term out, that magic can occur in the final grading process. I urge them not to make major life decisions, like whether or not to return to college, change their major, terminate a relationship, during this most emotional, irrational, time of year.

The opportunity: this brief window of end of term time with our students, post Thanksgiving, before the late December celebrations, to think through with them what is going to be a plan for support of them for the coming year. Many of us higher educators who work with new students have disproportionately invested in student support interventions that last the first term only, for example, a first-year seminar. How are we going to replace that support group which will be ending when final grades are submitted in December?

So December is not only a time for final papers, final exams. It is a time for final, year-end reflection on the year we and our students have had and how we can help them next year. As higher educators, the more intentional we can be about taking advantage of this question and opportunity, the more likely we are to give our students a December gift that really matters and lasts.

-John N. Gardner

Monday, December 14, 2009

Why We are In This Work

Particularly when times are tough for both us higher educators and our students, I think it is important to pause every now and then to reflect on and remind ourselves why we are in this work often called “student success.” I invite you to join me in some reflections on why are we in this work anyway? Because…

• it makes a difference for students

• it delivers on the promise of access while simultaneously maximizes resources

• it’s a way for us to repay the gift

• it keeps us learning and developing

• we see enormous progress in some of the most initially unlikely candidates for success

• it is a form of social justice

• it extends and continues the unfinished civil rights and women’s movements

• it creates for us an affinity group/network which brings us together with those of like values

• for some of us it has not only secular redeeming social value, but transcendent, spiritual worth as well

• it promotes the health of the body politic and the personal health of our citizens who by becoming college graduates have increased their probability of a longer life span

Ok, that’s why I am in this work. How about you?

-John N. Gardner

Friday, December 11, 2009

My Philosophy of Student Success

When I was on the graduate faculty of the University of South Carolina I taught (often with Betsy Barefoot) a seminar once a year for students in the masters and doctoral program in higher education administration. And we would ask them to write as part of their final examination, a philosophy statement for their philosophy of higher education. For most all of them, they had never been asked to think or write anything explicitly of this nature. But, of course, they did have philosophies, just as you do. And these are the basis of our daily actions on behalf of student success.
Anyway, compare yours with mine:

I want to both affirm and be transparent about some of my beliefs and what I hope are common beliefs:

I believe in the dignity and worth of all students, each student

I believe that what matters most is what we do for ALL students, not just some students

I believe that I can teach students to be successful

I believe that there is a demonstrable body of knowledge about teaching student success

I believe that what a student is today, in terms of prior achievement, predicted collegiate ability and high school rank in class, is not necessarily a valid predictor of what the student can become

I believe that these indicators do not measure students’ basic intelligence or motivation, nor our ability to successfully intervene

I believe that all students are “developmental"

I believe that all students are potentially at risk

I believe that we have to focus on the big picture, what is best for our institutions and all students, not necessarily our own students or programs

I believe that the greatest influence on students during their time in college is the influence of other students, and hence the need to intentionally put our very best students in positions of influence on their peers

I believe that it is the obligation and opportunity for government (and our public institutions) to intervene and to engineer opportunities for students – this is, I admit, a brand of old fashioned liberalism.

I believe in the value of holistic education that addresses the intellectual, personal, social, physical, spiritual, and safety needs of all students

I believe that educationally purposeful and meaningful learning experiences can and should take place anywhere that students, faculty and staff come together.

I believe that we must be and are advocates for what I coined in 1995 as “students in transition”: first-time college students; new students to your campus be the first time in college or transfer; sophomores who are not over the first-year hump and instead are in “slump,” and senior students preparing to leave higher education, at least for the time being.

I believe in the value of faculty, academic administrator, and student affairs partnerships, which is certainly illustrated by the demographic composition of this conference.

In conclusion, I am not suggesting that my philosophy should be yours, just that you should have one, and share it with your students especially. Just imagine what impact this might have if you published it in all your syllabi?!

John N. Gardner

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

I feel this coming: the four-year degree must go!

Back in what Maureen Dowd of The New York Times called “Bushworld,” I just knew this couldn’t last: lowering taxes; increasing government spending and debt; spreading democracy by invasion of two sovereign nations; accelerating deregulation; encouraging consumer debt and home ownership for those who couldn’t afford it; ignoring New Orleans. I knew things couldn’t last. What were we thinking when we allowed all this to happen? And then the house of cards came tumbling down. This is truly The Great Recession. And things aren’t going to go back to the way they were: the new normal. And one of the casualties is going to be the four-year degree. It’s just too expensive.

Let’s face it: we just can’t afford it any longer. Consumers can’t. Institutions can’t. Governments can’t. This unique American idea of a “four-year degree” with significant amounts of “general education,” which prolong time to degree completion rates and which many students (and faculty) don’t want, is going to become a vestigial organ.

We simply have to accelerate the process for degree attainment. Four to six years is simply too long to sustain the race. Perhaps one of the very best means we have to increase degree attainment is to decrease the required credit hours and hence decrease costs, and time to degree completion rates. Oh this makes me so sad. Our students will be less “well rounded.” There will be far fewer opportunities to introduce students to potential majors they never considered before (e.g. anthropology). Students will not have the grounding in writing, speaking, numeracy skills, knowledge of our own history, political systems, literature, world cultures, you name it. The professional majors will be the ones in the life boat.

This will accelerate the conversion of two-year colleges to what I am calling “comprehensive colleges,” offering two-year degrees through open admissions and allowing students to AVOID transfer by remaining at the same institution.

The times they are a-changing. Instead of putting a gun to my head over this, I think we have to get out front on this, manage it, use it as a catalyst to rethink everything we are doing, perhaps including the basic paradigm of looking at degree attainment is simply a matter of accumulating credits through seat time. What an exciting opportunity this may present. As Rahm Emmanuel has so famously said: “a crisis is a terrible opportunity to waste.”

-John Gardner

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Times They Are A’Changing: our Friendly Regional Accreditors

I have just spent the weekend with my wife, Betsy Barefoot, and about 3000 higher educators in Atlanta for the annual meeting of our regional accreditor, “SACS”, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. Who says we can’t change in higher ed? This meeting certainly ain’t like it used to be.

As a career higher educator and public employee in South Carolina, I had been through three of the SACS self studies in 1969-70, 79-80 and 89-90, and I resolved I wasn’t going to stick around for a fourth. They were deadly dull, ponderous, enormous exercises in bean counting; huge institutional exercises that comprised a shell game to create a magnum opus sufficient to get us off the hook for another decade. The report would sit on the shelf and in many or even most cases have no impact at all, particularly in terms of driving educational change.

So I took early retirement and founded with my wife a non-profit higher education organization. And now I am thinking about regional accreditation self studies almost every day. And I am participating in not only my own geographic region’s annual accreditor meeting but later this week Betsy and I are headed for the annual Middle States Meeting in Philadelphia; and I April we will participate in both the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) meeting in Chicago and the Western Association of Colleges and Schools (WASC) meeting in Long Beach. What’s happened?

What’s happened is that in the last decade the accreditors have reinvented themselves. They have become, in my judgment the biggest forces driving change on college campuses. For those of us whose primary focus is to help facilitate change in higher education to improve student learning, success, and retention, the accreditors are now the best partners we have. They are where the action is.

For an educator like me, who was used to conducting a relatively meaningless “self study,” the two most dreaded words in the higher ed lexicon, there has been a sea change. Now, most of the accreditors have a mechanism for campuses to develop an improvement project of some kind which becomes a central focus of the reaffirmation process. What an incredibly simple but powerful idea: let campuses voluntarily choose something they want to get better at and reward them with reaffirmation of accreditation.

I would certainly rather have our own peers in regional accrediting non profit, non governmental organizations doing the accrediting and quality control, than say: the federal government or a state agency.

So let’s hear it for the accreditors. And if those of you working to improve the experience of new and transfer students, haven’t yet linked your institutional improvement efforts to the larger campus processes of reaffirmation of accreditation, well, you have been missing out on a huge lever for change. Connecting say first-year work to accreditation has the potential to move your narrowly focused, and perhaps relatively low status, work to the top of the institution’s priority list. Please consider this. Accreditation really has changed, in both process and importance.

-John N. Gardner

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Blog as First-Year Student Diary: Writing is for Life

When I went to college as a first-year student, I wasn’t like the majority of today’s new students: I went away from home. And there wasn’t any internet or cell phones. Hence I wrote letters, real honest to God letters, hundreds of them. Oh how I wished I had asked my correspondents to save my letters. What a wonderful record they would have comprised for me, my children, and now grandchildren, about how a student can grow, change, mature, learn, suffer, ache—the whole gamut of possible outcomes. My letters were an opportunity for reflection, and for me to record my collegiate journey.

It was some years later after college when I had become something I never could have imagined during my own first college year I would be: a college professor helping students adjust to college. And I learned a strategy from one of my most special colleagues, Professor Jerry Jewler, that was a sort of analog, precursor, to a student blog. Jerry was a very talented professor of advertising and was working with me as the Co-Director of the University of South Carolina’s first-year seminar, University 101. He introduced a pedagogy into all sections of our course which we called simply: the weekly letter.

The assignment to our students was they were to write us a one page letter, each week. It was to have an introduction, body and conclusion and to develop one idea in one page. The instructor would usually provide a “trigger”, a focus, for the weekly letter. The stated goal of the exercise was to give the students an additional opportunity to practice simple written communication in a professional context.

But the real object was to provide three things: 1) a process for the student to reflect on what he/she was learning in college and their own collegiate journey; 2) an “early alert” system so that a student could communicate any significant problems to a caring university employee who could then intervene if appropriate; and 3) provide a structure for a relationship to develop between the student and an instructor, showing the student that writing was a means to develop relationships.

Each year in the first week of the semester, my “trigger” for the first of the weekly letters was: “write me a letter about the most significant unresolved problem you have had in your first week at the University”. One year, two of my twenty seven students wrote me that their most significant unresolved problem during the first week had been that they had been raped.

Writing my own blog has reminded me of what I did during my own first year of college, and what our students did in the weekly letters. So I would heartily endorse the idea of asking first-year students to start and maintain a blog to record their collegiate journey. Just think of the value to them, and also to qualitative researchers needing qualitative data for assessment purposes.

My colleague Jerry Jewler is retired now, but still writing, textbooks in fact. He and I both knew back in the 80’s that writing is not just for English 101, writing is for life.

-John N. Gardner

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Q: And what did you do over Thanksgiving vacation? A: What you did is who you are.

When I either read (skim) or hear about many blogs, the subjects of which are so intensely personal right down to the minutia, my usual response is: “Who cares?” Followed by: “Not me.” So I am not going to write about what I did over Thanksgiving even though it was a good one for me, and for which I am thankful.

The question though of how I versus you, good reader, spent our respective Thanksgiving vacations, reminds me for some reason of a really insightful explanation I was offered once by a practicing sociologist whose subtle mind and insights I admired, one Phillip Weinberger, a professor at Waynesburg College in Pennsylvania.

I once heard a presentation by Professor Weinberger about the challenges of transition to college faced by working class students, i.e. children of working class parents. Weinberger argued that such children encountered in college for the first time people (faculty) for whom work was never left “at work”; and for whom one’s “work” was synonymous with one’s identity. Thus, what you did, “profess” was synonymous with what you are, “professor”. My son once asked me why I asked so many questions? I told him because that’s what I am and what I do. Professor Weinberger explained to me that first-year college students from working class parents were more likely to be suitcase college students: i.e. they were more likely to go home over weekends, because they had learned from their parents that work was something you left behind; you did not take it home with you; and you got away from it as soon as you could. Work was merely an instrumental means to an end, life. For faculty though, work was life, the life of the mind.

And so I think about our students. Would it be worth asking our students, perhaps more for our information than theirs, how many of them did “work” (i.e. academic work) over the holidays? I am positive a greater proportion of us academics did “work” over the same period, myself included. These class differences are increasingly an important part of determining the fit of college, the success of transition, the understanding of new options for identity. Successful transition to college may not look like rocket science, but I would argue that it is almost as complex, and even more important.

-John N. Gardner

Monday, November 30, 2009

Thankful for the Access We Once Had

In the continuing spirit of Thanksgiving, I am thankful for the access we once had in our country to our greatest universities, made possible by a consensus of public policy to keep these access costs relatively low. Those were the halcyon days; by no means perfect, but infinitely better than what lies ahead.

I refer to the announcement last week that affects us all: the decision by the University of California Board of Regents to raise tuition by 32% for next fall. As The New York Times opined—“A Crown Jewel of Education Struggles…..”

I lived in a state for three decades that could easily dismiss California as another country, as one where things that happened there, surely can’t happen here. But they are and will. California led the way on an enormous orgy of personal, corporate, government debt and dysfunctional government gridlock. California’s system of higher education based on extraordinary innovation and public investment in low cost access and infrastructure, led the way too.

This suggests to me one more way the poor are going to be “whacked” as Tony Soprano would say. We all know who is going to be less able to attend the fabled UC System. And this is going to trickle down to almost all the rest of the states.

So what can we individual educators do? It is my hope that we can still use whatever forces we have for conscience, for advocacy, for equity, to try to shape what policies and practices we may still control to remember the poor, the less fortunate, who equally deserve access to our country’s flagships. I am not ready to give up this “ship” yet, but I am very worried that the Civil Rights movement has finally ended. Without low cost access to the very best public universities in our land, there can be no hope of leveling the playing field.

-John N. Gardner

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Ode to Thanksgivings Past: Part Two

This is the second in my continuing reflections on the possible meanings of Thanksgivings past.

It was the fall of my junior year of college, 1963. After a near disastrous start two years before, I had become a very, very good student. But I was still terrified of math and science. So I learned from my really helpful academic advisor, that there was a course I could take that would qualify as a “laboratory science” but that would be less challenging than a traditional lab science. Oh, how wrong he was. The course? Principles of Food Preparation.

I was the only male in the class; with 29 women. You can imagine what kind of thoughts they had about me. One of our lab requirements was to bake a loaf of bread from scratch. So I made my attempt in my Wednesday lab class, one week before Thanksgiving. The yeast did not rise in its bowl. And it was declared DOA. My very demanding professor told me that if I wanted to pass the lab portion of the course I had to repeat the exercise and that the only option I had was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the very day before. So I had to reschedule my flight home, at additional expense to my parents. I went back to the lab, succeeded this time in baking a loaf; then went to the airport for a late night flight back to New York City on Thanksgiving Eve, carrying my little loaf of bread with me.

We ate that bread in celebratory communion that next day. And I reflected that that professor had taught me an important lesson about negative stereotyping about other disciplines (in this case Home Economics) and about high standards for exactitude. That loaf of life giving bread, was a symbol for me that I had come a long way from Thanksgiving of two years before, with my mid term grades of 3F’s, 2D’s and one A.

I went back to college the next week; came to finals; made the highest grade in the class on the final exam (that’s right, higher than all the women), but my poor lab performance yielded me a B for the course, my only B for that whole year. I was still very thankful.

-John N. Gardner

Monday, November 23, 2009

Can Your Thanksgivings Past Be Instructive for Your Students?

Thanksgiving has so many possible purposes and meanings. When I think of my life of great fortune to be a higher educator, my thoughts at Thanksgiving season naturally turn to some of my past Thanksgivings, for example, when I was a college student. I draw upon these occasionally for homilies for my students. I am going to do several blogs on this topic.

It was Thanksgiving 1961, the year the Berlin Wall went up and the first year of John Kennedy’s presidency. And it was the first year of John Gardner’s college experience. I was a seventeen year old “freshman”, at a beautiful, small, rural, liberal arts college, on the banks of the Ohio and Muskingum Rivers in Marietta, Ohio. And oh was I homesick. And my mid term grades showed it: 3F’s, 2D’s and one A. What was the A in? You guessed it: PE, most challenging thing I did that fall: rowing crew. One of those D’s was in what I do now occasionally: public speaking.

Well, that year was 13 years before the US Senate amended the Privacy Act to permit colleges and universities NOT to send grades home to parents. As is rarely the case for me, I was ahead of my times. So my grades were mailed home to my parents. It was not an occasion for Thanksgiving, but it was an occasion for discussion with them, reflection, admonishment and more.

How are you going to use your Thanksgivings past for at least one homily that might lead at least one student to a small epiphany?

-John N. Gardner

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Thanksgiving That Was Forever a Teachable Moment: My 9/11

Friday, November 20, is the 46th anniversary of the assassination of President John Kennedy. Like most all of my generation, this was our 9/11. I remember where I was that day, what I was doing, what I was thinking. My world would never be the same. It has remained a powerful epiphany for Thanksgiving.

On a beautiful, sunny, warm, late fall day in Marietta, Ohio, I was sitting in class in political philosophy, really engaged in what one of my favorite professors was telling us. We were reading one of the greatest works of western civilization: Plato’s Republic. We had been spending weeks discussing one of the two most central questions of that work, two questions that are still paramount in my mind each day of my adult life: What is Justice? And Who Should Rule?

That day, the professor, Dr. R.S. Hill, was about to lead us to the answer to the second question: that, of course, philosophers should be kings. But he didn’t quite get there that day because our class was interrupted with the news of the President’s assassination. Class was excused.

I went outside and briefly talked with fellow students. But I found no answers, no solace in that. So I went to where I always found solace, to the place on campus where was stored the truth of all ages: the Library. And I spent several hours in there meditating, and taking in the smell, the feel, the constancy of that holy place.

Later that afternoon a college-wide announcement went out that classes for the following week would be cancelled! I was stunned. That was the Monday and Tuesday before Thanksgiving. Monday was declared a day of national mourning. So the College administration decided that because they would be obligated to cancel classes on Monday, that it seemed pointless to keep the students around from Friday to Tuesday.

The reaction: pandemonium. Sheer jubilation on the part of many of my fellow students. That Friday evening was one all night party. I was shocked. How could they be celebrating when the cause of this unanticipated extended vacation was the murder of our President? This was one more of the many clues I was getting in college that I was different from most of my fellow students and probably would never quite “fit in” outside the academy. But I didn’t know that yet.

I also didn’t know yet that that other unresolved question—what is justice----would be the guiding intellectual, social, moral, political question paramount to my life. This also became my principal professional question: what is justice—for first-year students, sophomores, seniors, and transfers.

Thanksgiving is one more occasion for us to reflect with our students on what are the most important questions we all need to be pursuing in college. For in college and life, the questions are often more empowering than the answers.

-John N. Gardner

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Power to the Peers!

The ring of the header above has to reveal that I am a child of the 60’s with its evocation of “power to the people.” I confess, I am. That was the period in which I acquired my idealism which drives me still. I was inspired by President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, the early feminist thinkers and leaders, the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements, the anti-war movement, in which I participated after I completed my tour of military service, honorably and with gratitude, the subject of another blog. Anyway, to the point of this blog: students have always had power.

Decades of good research has determined that the single greatest influence on college student decision making during the college years, is the influence of other students. This is one of those things like the working in college phenomena. We can’t beat it. Why not join it? This is to say, once you recognize the enormous influence of students on students, the logical conclusion should be we need to try to influence this by putting the students we want to influence other students into positions of influence to do just that.

Inspired by uses of “peer mentors” in first-year seminars that I saw at such places as Baldwin-Wallace College (OH) and Kean University of New Jersey, I decided in 1991, when I was the Executive Director of University 101 at the University of South Carolina, to personally be the first 101 instructor to use a “peer mentor” as a test case. It was a wonderful experience. I am indebted to my peer leader, Ms. Lisa Huttinger, for giving me and my students such a wonderful experience. And then I became even more indebted to my Co-director of University 101, Professor Dan Berman for picking up the ball and creating our powerful peer leader program at USC. Today, over 175 sections of the course annually have a peer leader.

I say “even more indebted” because my colleague, Dan Berman, had been a sophomore at Marietta College in 1961, when I was a floundering first-year student also at Marietta. And it was his spontaneous and generous reaching out to influence me, by showing me how to take lecture notes, and select really engaging professors, that I attribute more than anything else to getting me off academic probation. I often think were it not for my own “peer leader” I would never have been able to stay in college, and then go on to help other college students. Power to the peers!

-John N. Gardner

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

How Long Has it Been Since You Were in a High School?

With all the evidences of under preparation and negative attitudes towards learning that we see in some of our students, it sure is handy to have the public schools to blame! Where would we be without them (in more ways than one)? This observation reminds me of a professional student affairs officer (Mark Shanley, now of Miami University of Ohio and once of my beloved original USC) who opined to me: “John, it is a lot easier to just sit back and be critical of the abuses of fraternities, than it is to do something constructive.” By “constructive” he meant serving as a faculty advisor to a fraternity. So he conned me into doing that—for 16 years. That’s another story. But what about doing something “positive” with our colleagues who are preparing to send us our new students?

Last night I did such a thing. I did a presentation (be glad to send you a copy) for 9th graders and their parents at the local high school in the community where I live. I so enjoyed these families, their optimism, concerns, and appreciation for how important they know college is to their futures as families.

The fact that I could be there at all still amazed me. I say this because back around 1994 I decided that it was high time I offered to do some “volunteer community service” in the small South Carolina city where I was living, Lexington. I thought, well what could I do? What skills and knowledge do I have that might have any socially redeeming value in my community? My answer was to go out to the local high school, meet with the director of guidance, and offer to do a pro bono workshop for college-bound seniors. She was stunned that I would make such an offer and said that she would not be empowered to make such a decision and that I had to see the principal. So I did. And he sat stone faced, arms crossed on his chest, appraising me as some commie, pinko, liberal educator wanting to come in and contaminate his kids, whose job his was to protect. So he declined my offer.

Never taking “no” for an answer very well, I thought about how could I get my knowledge in that school. Then I had an inspiration: put it on video and sell it to the school. And, that’s what I did, thanks to USC and the wonderful talents of South Carolina Educational Television. They produced a video “Your College Experience” which was sold all over the country, generating high six figure revenues, and hopefully helping some college bound students.

This time in Brevard, North Carolina, there were no such roadblocks. And this has become a significant form of community service for me. I have met with college bound seniors and parents, rising juniors and parents about college choice, and ninth grade students and parents about why go to college and how to prepare for that over the high school years.

Any of my readers could do this too. And/or you could do other things to bring your expertise and good will to our partners in the secondary schools. I hope you will consider doing so. It takes a whole village to raise a successful college student.

-John N. Gardner

Monday, November 16, 2009

Why Does the First-Year Matter?

More than ever this is a story we must be telling. Like the most important things in life (e.g. “I love you”) the most important messages must be delivered repeatedly and explicitly. I raise this because almost daily I am hearing anecdotes about the ravages of the “Great Recession” on first-year programs—and their reduction or elimination.

I have seen this before: in the recessions of 1980-82, 1990-92, and 2000-2002, but this one appears to be more extensive. First-year programs are often vulnerable for multiple reasons: they are newer, may be led by younger and non-faculty educators, often disproportionately serve disadvantaged students; are not based in traditional academic departments with more power, and have more part-time and marginalized employees, etc.

So in these times you need a mantra that cannot be said too often. Why does the first-year matter? Because it is that critical period of transition when:

1. Students receive their foundational coursework

2. Students form their attitudes towards faculty, staff and the institution

3. Students do or do not develop college level study habits

4. Students may or may not overcome negative attitudes towards formal education acquired during their previous educational experiences

5. Students are assessed to give us base line assessment data in order for us to determine how we add value and to demonstrate accountability for such outcomes

6. Students should be introduced to service opportunities

7. Students learn our institutional mission and the roles and purposes of higher education

8. Students have their first college experiences which form the “foundation” for ultimate mission attainment

9. Students choose those all important relationships with other students that will influence their success

10. Students make important choices about which groups to affiliate with and thus be influenced by

11. Students begin the acquisition of lifelong adult habits of mind and behavior

12. Students develop and improve time and other self management skills

13. Students decide whether to persist or drop out.

How could there be any doubt that the first year matters? Unfortunately, the question is not asked often enough. What matters is that you develop your own mantra and rationale. I hope this will inspire you.

-John N. Gardner

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Veterans Day Reflection: All I Ever Needed to Know about Orienting New Students to College I Learned in the Military

Veteran’s Day has come and gone again. And I am reminded of how much I learned from my military service about helping new college students survive their transition experience. I learned much of this from my two drill sergeants whose names I still remember 43 years later.

One was Staff Sergeant Small, who was about 6 feet, 9 inches tall and whose previous tour of duty had been as a White House Honor Guard. I had never had a teacher so “proud.” And he was my first “teacher” of another race. He had this ability to capture my attention by asking commanding questions. This reminded me of a goal of a goal of a good liberal arts education: that sometimes the question is more important than the answer.

For example he would say: “Listen up: do you want to survive Vietnam? If so, you have to know there are three ways to do things: the right way, the wrong way, and the Air Force way. And I am going to unlearn you the first two, and learn you the latter!”

So, what were my lessons?

1. First we have to tell our students what we are going to “learn” them. Then we have to “learn” them. And then we have to tell them what we “learned” them. And that’s an exact quote from Sgt. Small.

2. At any college or university, there are three ways to do anything: the right way, wrong way, and the institutional way. We must teach the institutional way.

3. Students learn best, like the troops, when authority figures believe they can be taught and that they can learn.

4. When given the choice, most students will chose to make positive choices to learn to do whatever they need to do to survive.

5. Thus students can be taught and learn “survival skills.”

6. New students need to learn a new language of a new culture, and its history, traditions, customs.

7. College students need a “basic training” for college.

8. Ideally, this is an extended, intentional orientation, preferably dispensed in a credit bearing course.

9. Every institution has a mission, and the sooner the student figures that out, the more likely he/she will achieve a successful fit.

This recollection of my learnings reminds me of how nearly 40 years later we selected a military university as an “Institution of Excellence” in the first college year (I feel another blog coming on!).

-John N. Gardner

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veteran’s Day Salute

November 11th is a day devoted to recognizing our veterans who have served in our armed forces. I am proud to say I am a veteran. I am indebted to my military experience during the Vietnam era because it gave me my career as a higher educator and my first big break with the University of South Carolina, where I began my work on the first year, and still continue some of that work today.

I graduated from college in 1965, and for able bodied, young, college degree holding, men like me there were only these options:

1. Volunteer to serve in the armed forces

2. Allow yourself to be “drafted” in the armed forces

3. Gain a draft deferment through marriage

4. Or obtain a deferment by work for a defense industry employer

5. Or obtain a deferment by going to seminary

6. Or by going to graduate school.

7. Flee to some other country with non extradition treaty for draft avoidance.

Upon my graduation, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. But I knew I didn’t want to go to Canada, much as I loved that country from living there five years as a child. And I didn’t want to be drafted. And I knew I wasn’t mature enough for marriage, although I had several possible candidates. And I had no interest in seminary. So I chose graduate school. And off I went. But, Uncle Sam had other plans for me. I came from a draft board region of the country where they ran out of non college grads to draft and so they started drafting college grads, including me. So I volunteered for the Air Force, which made me an instant psychiatric social worker, based on my MA in American Studies!

After OTS and basic training I was sent to South Carolina to the 363rd Tactical Hospital at Shaw AFB, Sumter. My squadron commander called me in and told me that his review of my record suggested I had more education than anyone in the squadron except the physicians, and that therefore he wanted me to do some college teaching. I had never before thought of being a college teacher, even though I had been an outstanding undergraduate student, once beyond my first year. None of my professors had ever suggested I emulate them. Amazing. What a poor job they did of recruiting their successors.

But the Air Force was much more intrusive! Two days later I was sent to the University of South Carolina for a review of my credentials, and emerged having been approved to teach six adjunct courses. And, I started teaching my first college course, two weeks later, a couple of days before my 23rd birthday, looking much younger than many of my students, particularly because I lacked much hair. My first teaching was at an open admissions, two-year, non residential campus of the University, very much like a community college, in Lancaster, S.C.

I eventually learned in later work at USC how much the Air Force had taught me (the subject of another blog!) about how to teach people to survive and “transition” into an important new educational experience. I am so glad I am a veteran. For me, it was truly life transforming, and new life giving.

John N. Gardner

Monday, November 9, 2009

Students in Transition

This is the name of a conference that is being hosted by the University of South Carolina for the 16th time, since 1995. I know because I am the founder of this conference series and I write this as I attend the 16th edition. This is really all about a very simple idea. Sort of like bottled water. Or the roller bag suitcase. Why didn’t someone else think of it? Frankly, I don’t know. I am amazed no one else had. I had been organizing conferences on what came to be called “The First-Year Experience” since 1982, and no one had been doing that before. And there was a need to convene higher educators to talk about new students and how to help them succeed. I needed to learn more about that, which is why I organized these meetings—and even more importantly to help other educators.

In 1989 I met a university President, Betty Siegel, at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, who shared with me her keen interest in college seniors, their transition experiences out of college, and how she had designed a seminar to help them do just that. Also in that same year my older son was a senior at the University of South Carolina. And I was thinking a lot about what he needed as a senior in transition, and what my university was, or was not doing to help him make that transition successfully.

I felt so inspired by Betty Siegel, and my son, that I asked her to co-host a conference with the University of South Carolina on the topic of “The Senior Year Experience.” We did so in 1990 and again in 1991, 93 and 94. The response was good, but not good enough to pay the bills. So I decided to roll this focus on the “senior year experience” into a still broader focus: “students in transition.”

Thus, the “students in transition” concept was born and we held our first conference in Dallas in 1995. The response was enormous. For the first time, educators came together to discuss the transition challenges of: first-year students; those in the “sophomore slump”; the transfer student experience; the senior year experience, and more. The key assumption was that college students are “in transition.” And the key challenge for higher educators to examine was really a dual one: how are our campuses organized to help “students in transition”; and thus, how are we in transition, and not just the students?

And those are still the driving questions today, in 2009!

Friday, November 6, 2009

An Alternative to “Housing” for the Higher Ed Lexicon

Recently, I wrote that I thought the “Housing” ought to come out of the higher ed lexicon. So what about a replacement?

I have not tinkered for years, mentally, with what an alternative name could be—particularly one that wouldn’t be a true mouthful. One idea- “ACU” for Academic Residential Environments (ACUARE). And maybe we should throw the key word “learning” in there somewhere. I argued in my introduction to the ACUHO/FYE monograph years ago that residence halls have always been a place for “learning.” But I think the question has increasingly become: what should students be learning in such contexts and is what they definitely are learning what we would ideally want them to be learning? So, how about “Academic Residential Learning Environments” (ACUARLE)? or “Collegiate Residential Academic Learning Environments” (CRALE). That last acronym is slightly more pronounceable! “Collegiate” is generic for “college and university” and “collegiate” is also meant to differentiate from “corporate” as in outsourced housing. I think that somewhere the three words “residential” and “academic” and “learning” are central. I am sure there could be other semantic reorderings for consideration. The practical question would immediately be thrown out: “Well, what would the “Housing office on campus become known as?” Good question. How about simply the “Residential Learning” office? Students would have to sign a “residential learning” contract. Campuses would adopt “residential learning” policies. There, that’s solved. Quite simple. And it is a great improvement over “housing” which, again, says nothing about learning—or being “on campus.”

I think the time for a name change has come. What a boost a name change would give to the whole movement to push student affairs in more academic directions. It seems not changing the name flies in the face of everything the student affairs profession has been trying to do since 1994 with the first publication of the profession’s core mantra: The Student Learning Imperative. Or more recently restated as: Learning Reconsidered.  Finally, I think I am put off by the language of ACUHO because it is fundamentally a business paradigm and not an educational one. In that sense it is in keeping with other more “corporate” directions of the academy which profoundly disturb me. Ah, I feel the subject of another blog coming on.

John N. Gardner

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Let’s take the “H” out of Housing: It’s all in a name!

In the late 80’s when I was directing the National Resource Center for The First Year Experience at USC, we entered into a collaborative project with ACUHO, the Association of College and University Housing Officers--International, namely, to produce a monograph on the importance of the “residential first-year experience.” This seemed like a no brainer for me in that the largest percentage of students in college-owned residence halls are first-year. Well, we had a great partnership and such a monograph was produced.

At the same time the outsourced “housing” movement was developing and more and more companies were getting into the act and I began to see them as a threat potentially, and certainly a competitor to college owned housing operations. It seemed apparent to me that “housing” is not the core business of the academy whereas “housing” was the core business of these companies. I came to conclude that “housing” was really not the business we should be in and that the very term itself was inviting outsourced “housing” to organizations that could do it better. My argument was/is that we are in the “education” business, but conducted in a residential context on college campuses. Now this is more than a semantic distinction. Names reflect culture and values.

At the same time for a half century or so the US higher ed accounting model had classified “housing” as “auxiliary” revenues. I came to regard this as a terrible idea because it reinforced the perception that the primary role of such units was to “make money.” Hence the reporting model, I understand at many places “housing” reports through business channels.

And further, at the same time, in the 1990’s I became very involved in promoting the basic theme that we needed to ramp up the extent of “academic” initiatives in the residence halls, particularly the concept of “residential colleges.” So, again, in partnership with housing professionals, we at the USCNRC published a monograph on the residential college concept.

Then I went over the edge. I wrote, I seem to recall either the President or a number of the members of the ACUHO Board of Directors, this was somewhere in the mid-late 90’s and I spelled out my concerns about the “H” in their name. I got no response. I assume they felt, quite correctly, that my feedback was both unsolicited and meddling.

And, so, that brings us to where we are today: the “H” is still there. I see the “H” as a vestige of the old era of student affairs work, largely unconnected to the academic enterprise and mission and more concerned with “affairs” than with learning. I have also seen the role of the “H” played out on many campuses where the “housing director” is either still attached to the vestigial view of such facilities and/or in conflict with more contemporary thinkers and trying to integrate the academic curriculum into the residential life environs. So, in conclusion, I see the presence or absence of the “H” as being fundamental to what this profession is all about. I also believe that the higher ed residential setting has changed much more than the ethos of the organization, apparently, by the continuing presence of the “H”.
Ok, now what to do about this? More in my next post.

John N. Gardner

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The New Normal for “Night School”

I am in Boston which is of no consequence to any reader, but this reminds me of an attention grabbing story in The New York Times last week, page 1, above the fold, about a new meaning to “night school.” The focus of the story was on the huge influx of enrollment of students into community colleges and the resultant space capacity crunch and how some colleges were dealing with this by expanding hours of operation. As an illustration, Bunker Hill Community College in Boston is offering classes starting as late as 11:30 PM running until 2:30 AM. Other colleges are moving earliest class to 6:00 AM. So readers, how many of us were so committed to our own college experience that we would go at 11:30 at night or 6:00 AM in the morning to an academic event?!

So here I am in Boston where American higher education began in 1636 with the founding of Harvard, and where the ongoing refinement of higher education is taking still another new form. Given the low probability of increased government funding for higher education, this massive shift of students into the two-year sector will be the “new normal.”

This leads me to think of the resilience, the adaptability, the creativity, the necessity, of both our higher ed enterprise and our students. They need us more than ever. Our country needs them more than ever. Personally, I admire the kind of thinking that went into the decisions to make higher ed available, literally at all costs, in any legitimate way, and the remarkable determination and courage of those seeking what we have to offer.

We have a great responsibility to such students, all our students. What a privilege to work with such brave new beginners. And we all have students like these.

John N. Gardner

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Education for what?

In 1992 I spent 10 days in Norway with my professional colleague (and future wife), Betsy Barefoot. We were visiting and working with a group of small, regional engineering colleges to improve success of their first-year students. We learned that engineering was very important to the Norwegian government because engineering in Norway was what legal education is in the US: the training ground for the country’s future political leadership.

This is just one of the many occasions when I have thought about the basic question: higher education for what? And I know what the most common lay person’s answers are to that question: jobs, salary, opportunity, etc. All true. But for me, I think the most important purpose of higher education is to educate America’s future leaders.

I went to a small, liberal arts college, Marietta, a transformative place for me, that has now, what it didn’t have when I was a student, but oh how I wish it did: a bachelors degree in leadership studies. I would love to go back and do that, do college all over again. But I can’t. So what I can do is to help colleges lay the foundation for leadership education in the beginning first-year experience. You can do that too.

John N. Gardner

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Homecoming: A vestigial organ, or an idea whose time has come?

It is fall, the most beautiful time of the year in the mountains of western North Carolina where I live with my wife, Betsy Barefoot, and do much of my work. It is a time when my thoughts return to when I began college in the fall on the banks of the Ohio River in southern Appalachia. It is Homecoming time.

I have often thought- who is it that the students come back to see? Surely it is not the staff and administration for my generation, because that was the era when we had few staff and no student affairs professionals. We came back to see the faculty, and each other. During my thirteen years as a Vice Chancellor, I kept reminding myself: the students won’t be coming back to see me.

Admittedly, this notion of “Homecoming” is an anachronism that doesn’t, couldn’t work at so many colleges of today: those with no football teams, no residence halls, those with student bodies that are as “adult” as they are recent high school graduate. But on the other hand, why shouldn’t all campuses have a “homecoming” to invite the return of students to that environment where they developed new identities, new hopes, new realities, new credentials, new skills? Wouldn’t it be in our self interests as institutions of higher learning to cultivate this notion of campus as a “home” with all the notions of sanctuary that that connotes, and to which you return periodically throughout life, if not daily? I think so.

So, assuming all of us then could have Homecoming on our own campus, what would we want to be remembered for by our students? Why in the world would they want to come back and see us again? What kind of feedback would you want your students to give you, now that they finally had the detachment on their experiences with you and the wisdom that only aging in the real world can provide? Oh, that we should treat our students every day in a manner that they would want to come back at Homecoming and thank us.

John N. Gardner

Friday, October 23, 2009

What questions would you ask?

After launching an international movement to improve the beginning college experience from my former position at the University of South Carolina’s National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, I was challenged in 1999 by my mentor, Russ Edgerton of The Pew Trusts, to think afresh about what I/we could do if we had the time and money to do new work never before undertaken.

So much work had already been done to improve the beginning college experience. Admittedly, the driver for this was a pecuniary more than an educational vision: to generate more money through enhanced retention. Increasingly I experienced “retention fatigue” and longed for a more aspirational approach.

We seized upon the idea of asking another question instead: what would an EXCELLENT beginning experience look like—as opposed to one that would retain students?

To answer that question, we decided to develop a set of standards of excellence for the first of college, which institutions could use both to measure their performance and for aspirational strategic planning to achieve beginning excellence (standards found at  Now, what matters more than the questions I have asked, are the ones you are pushing to achieve educational improvement and excellence.

So, what are the big questions you are raising? And with what results? I learned in my own small college liberal arts education that the questions are often more important than the answers. My big aha moment as a first-year student, was the question in Plato’s Republic: what is justice?

Same question today: what is justice for new students?

John N. Gardner

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Reunion of Sorts

This is my inaugural blog posting. We all remember our first time for many things in life. This weekend I am going to have a reunion of sorts with a mentor of mine.

My wife, Betsy Barefoot, and I will be attending a special symposium this weekend to mark the tenth anniversary of the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), one of the creators of which is Russell Edgerton, past President of the American Association for Higher Education and Director of the Pew Forum on Undergraduate Learning. When Russ was serving in the late 90’s as the senior program officer for The Pew Charitable Trusts he sat me down and asked me a question, a part of which I am still trying to answer: “John, if you and Betsy had one to five million dollars and one to five years to do anything you wanted to do to improve the beginning college experience, what would you do?”

The Trusts subsequently awarded us three grants to launch and build the Policy Center on the First Year of College. In 2007, Betsy and our Center colleagues persuaded me to morph the center into a new 501c3 non-profit, immodestly named for me ( We are still trying to answer Russ’s original question: what would/could we do to improve the beginning college experience?

I hope my readers will become a blog community of practice and share their answers to the same fundamental question, hopefully, more broadly applied to all of undergraduate education.

John N. Gardner