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