Wednesday, December 22, 2010

An Issue for Next Year: An Examination of Equity

As we end another calendar, not academic, year, I find myself thinking particularly about one issue in our society, that manifests itself on our campuses too: equity, rather lack of it.

Here we are in what is the last week of the academic year on most campuses and our government has just taken a step that makes an even larger statement to me than the intended focus on this particular government action.

I am referring to the legislation President Obama signed on December 17th extending the Bush era tax cuts for all Americans, including the wealthiest two percent of the population whose joint adjusted gross incomes are in excess of $250,000 a year. While I do believe that we have done this, there is a part of me that is still the rational academic trying to practice critical thinking. How could a country in which one major party claims to be obsessed with concern about the deficit, have just forced legislation on the country to give the wealthiest of our citizens a tax cut costing the government over 800 billion dollars in the next two calendar years, and increasing the national debt by this amount? What this means then is that all Americans have just put themselves in debt to give a huge Christmas gift to the wealthiest, a debt which all Americans will have to repay.

Of course, this is all about inequality. We are surrounded by indicators of increased inequity including on our campuses.

I don’t live and teach on a campus anymore, and haven’t since 1999. But I still “teach” only my “students” are professional higher educators like myself. And while I visit campuses almost every week, I don’t focus my energies exclusively on one. But everywhere I visit I see inequities that mirror the larger society, where on our campuses the high status programs that serve high status students enjoy a much larger slice of the resource pie than low status programs that serve low status students. How could it be any other way in America?

Well, it could be different. Campuses don’t always have to precisely mirror the values of the larger society. At times we take it upon ourselves to practice our academic freedom and take on more idealistic causes to argue for alternative ways of living in our country.

So if I were going to be on one campus primarily in 2011 with my own set of students in their most formative years intellectually, I would be focusing, some at least, on this issue of inequity. Where does it exist on our campus? Why? What are the consequences for the institution, its members, and our country? And what might we be able to do about this. For example, in our own resource reallocations, are we letting the rich get the biggest tax breaks of all? You tell me. Better yet, tell your students, if you dare.

-John N. Gardner

Monday, December 20, 2010

Self Study: It Ain’t Like It Used to Be!

The audience for this blog may well be primarily the older set in the academy, my colleagues who were introduced to and made to endure the kind of self-studies that were inflicted upon us by our curious American system of nongovernmental quality assurance known as regional accreditation. These self studies were laborious exercises in data collection which led to the writing of voluminous tomes read by absolutely no one other than institutional historians and the members of the visiting accrediting teams. This punishment was inflicted on us every ten years. We produced a magnum opus which then sat on a shelf for the next ten years the minute after the visiting team left town. These largely useless exercises were a great deal of work, no doubt. One of the reasons I took “early” retirement from the University of South Carolina was that I knew if I didn’t I would be dragooned, as a good University citizen, into my fourth such exercise.

Well, an interesting thing has happened for me since. I voluntarily got involved in my University’s decanal self study, but this time under the entirely new structure and process for reaccreditation known as the “QEP”, short for “quality enhancement plan”, offered by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools which accredits the University of South Carolina. I have had the privilege and actual “pleasure” of serving on a fifteen person team charged with the designing of the Quality Enhancement Plan.

I have been so pleasantly surprised. We really are creating something new for the University, a major new initiative that I am already persuaded will improve student engagement and learning. We are doing a number of things that many of us have wanted to do for a long time but before we did not have the imprimatur, the urgency, the pressure of the regional accreditor as justification. Even in these dire times financially new resources will be found to launch this continuous quality improvement initiative.

We have spent time in highly collegial dialogue and brainstorming in a group that consists of faculty, academic and student affairs administrators, IR and assessment professionals, and students. We have been examining such basic questions as:
1. How do our students learn?
2. How could/should our students learn?
3. How do we introduce them to the learning opportunities of a great university?
4. What are the overall objectives of a university education, particularly for improving the social good?
5. How can we measure these outcomes?
6. How can we use new technologies to maximize students taking opportunities and helping them make good choices, while increasing our efficiencies?
7. How can we focus on improving undergraduate student learning both inside and outside the classroom in an historic research university culture that often tends to favor research over the teaching of undergraduates?

And the above are just getting us rolling.

I think the accreditors have done a good thing by giving us this opportunity to be rewarded with something we have to have, accreditation, for doing something we have wanted to do: a major institutional innovation to improve student success.

So my message to my senior colleagues is that if you haven’t gotten involved with these new forms of accreditation, you should consider doing so. These are available not just in the SACS region but in others as well. These are processes to make “assessment” truly meaningful and intellectually stimulating. That’s a good thing because while few things are any longer a sure thing in higher education, one of the sure things is that the emphasis on “assessment” isn’t going away. And such reaccreditation exercises now linked with quality assurance and improvement processes are a way to make this inevitability more than bearable. Try it. You might like it.

-John N. Gardner

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

What’s To Be Thankful For?

I have written before about how my college educated status influences how I spend my vacation time. Still true. Am writing on Thanksgiving vacation and have spent a lot of that doing professional work; and also thinking about what I should be thankful for. Not so much “thankful” on a personal basis—I don’t even have to think a minute about that to make that list: my wife, my family, career, good health, beautiful place to live, opportunities to serve my country. No it’s more of the “what’s going on right now in the country” that I have to be thankful for, particularly that I could impress college students they ought to consider as well? But I am having a very difficult time with this exercise.

From the perspective of what might be good for college students, we have just conducted our mid- term elections. And I can’t imagine that these results are going to be good for college students. Clearly the stimulus money is not going to be renewed. We are going to let the states and their finances flounder Herbert Hoover style. This will lead to more state budget cuts and then ripple down to public campuses meaning fewer classes, larger classes, more closed out classes, program cuts, increased tuition and fees, and so on. Not good news for college students whom I have spent my life advocating for.

This same picture is going on elsewhere too. I have been watching the British university students protest vigorously, unlike American students, the recently announced government cuts to higher education in the UK. I am not optimistic that those UK students are going to prevail. They will only do so when they ultimately vote a change of government. Our students though don’t even muster a protest. They don’t seem to have a clue. I can’t be thankful for that.

This forces me to reflect on the students of my generation. They faced great challenges too. But many of them marched and protested. And they won expanded rights and opportunities for students on campuses. They helped end the Vietnam War. They brought down a presidential administration. They helped make the civil rights movement a stunning accomplishment. I say “they”. I should say “we”. I am thankful for what students have done in that era of our past.

But every generation is different. There is no doubt on my part that we have pampered our college students of today. We have courted them like the consumers they are. We have provided them with great opportunities and so many forms of assistance and support, many of which I helped create. These will continue in place, but no doubt in a reduced state for the time being. Our students are going to have to become even more resilient, flexible, adaptable, self-reliant. The international trend is clear: the bankers and brokers have sinned. They took enormous risks with other peoples’ money (OPM). They got rich in the process. They brought down the economies of the developed world. Now we have to restore the banks especially to health and all the other companies which are too big to fail. To do so we must cut other government expenses, cut benefits, pensions, social services, make the poor pay to subsidize the failings and then the continued lifestyles of the rich. We continue to glorify the lifestyle and achievements of the financial services industry which remains the number one employment sector of choice for our very best students. I am not thankful for all this.

I want my students to learn from this. To learn so they can lead, to prevent us from repeating this. I am not thankful for this opportunity, nor for my belief that I am not convinced my students will take this opportunity.

Monday, November 29, 2010

“Find A Good Company and Stick With It”

I recalled those words recently when a very important member of my staff paid me a visit to inform me that she was resigning to pursue a powerful personal aspiration, and one that could not be more American: to start her own business (with her husband). This colleague had come to work with me right after college and graduate school and had spent approximately five years as our employee. And she had done a wonderful job and had come to be absolutely invaluable to us. To her generation that is a very long time. To mine, and especially my father’s, it was a drop in the bucket.

My father worked for his “company”, literally 43 years, in an era when one could easily and gladly do that, in an era when companies had social contracts with their employees. I took my father’s advice and “stuck with” my employer, the State of South Carolina, and especially the University of South Carolina, for 32.5 years on a full-time basis, and now for another eleven years on a less than full-time appointment. I know I was greatly influenced by the values of my father.

Back in the 90’s when I was still working full-time for USC I had another young woman employee come to see me one day to tell me she was resigning. I remember vividly what she told me: “John, I have been with you for four years. Nobody in my graduating class has stayed with the same employer for that long out of college. Working for you is not like the real world. You are too good to people”. So off she went and I actually helped her get a next job with a for-profit employer, a textbook publisher.

Another colleague of mine, who decided to move on after eight years told me: “You would have made a great manager in the 50’s. You expect so much loyalty. You are a real dinosaur”. I admit it. Guilty as charged. I still want to try to provide that kind of social contract for my employees.

Had I to do it over again, I would have stayed again for more than three wonderful decades with USC. But I have to admire these younger professionals who are moving on. Perhaps they are more open to change and new experiences than I was. They are certainly risk takers, particularly to do things like start a new business in this economy. They are more willing to get off the track and experiment with new possibilities, to reinvent themselves. They don’t want to grow into advanced middle age wondering how life might have turned out if only that had moved on early from that comfortable job. They have a kind of courage that perhaps I lacked. Maybe it’s just a different kind of courage. And they definitely know how to teach themselves what they need to learn to be successful. Their technological savvy helps them do this. Their ethos does also. Many of them are what my late friend, Al Siebert, called “The Survivor Personality”. I’m a survivor too, but a different kind of one. I found one thing, got very good at it and stuck with it.

I am not saying one course is better than the other, just different. Having such colleagues is certainly interesting and instructive. I certainly can’t change this cultural inclination to move on. I just have to mentor my younger colleagues while I have them and hope that I am helping prepare them well for the inevitable moving on. We all have to focus on what we can reasonably control in our respective spheres of influence and try to influence accordingly and positively within those spheres.

I consider it a privilege to be a part of such lives as they move in, move through, and move on.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Our Words Do Matter

Recently I wrote about how I had given a speech and used the phrase “social justice” as a way of characterizing the first-year experience movement in US and international higher education; and my point was to share the surprise and please reported to me by an audience member at the use of that phrase, because in today’s politically charged highly polarized US culture, we have been encouraged not to use all kinds of words and concepts. Our words do matter.

It is a shame that we are reluctant to discuss certain concepts with our students for fear of being accused of “politicizing” the classroom. The very act of abstaining from referencing certain concepts is certainly a form of “politicizing” the classroom.

I think not only of “social justice” as a term we avoid, but also the word “liberal.” Many of my colleagues are so intimidated about using this word publicly that they have become apologetic if they ever slip and utter it.

The same can be said, in some but fewer contexts, of the word “conservative.” But certainly it is far more acceptable to describe oneself as “conservative” than “liberal.”

I remember how we completely changed the meaning of one word in 1970: “busing.” Busing school children to school was as American as apple pie and had been for decades, until court action “forced” the use of “busing” to racially integrate the formerly de jure segregated public school system in Charlotte/Mecklenburg, North Carolina. And now millions of US parents drive their school age children to school instead of the alternative: busing. In fact, many parents enroll students in private schools to avoid busing and everything else they think goes with it.

Another term which I encounter frequently in higher education is the phrase “developmental education.” This is now used often as a pejorative to mean some kind of “remediation” that we should not be doing because students should have developed the competencies when they were in high school. This abhorrence for developmental education ignores, of course, that the offering of compensatory education has been offered in US post secondary education ever since the adoption of the Land Grant Act of 1862. Instead, this phrase has become contaminated with hot button political components having to do with the poor, race and class. What a shame that we cannot talk openly, proudly, about the need to provide social justice for hundreds of thousands of Americans beyond secondary school traditional age who need to be further “developed” to do college work.

Personally, I am tired of feeling constrained about using such language I intend to overcome such constraints and let the spirit move me in the spirit of academic freedom. Our students need to be introduced to such concepts and let them decide for themselves.

-John Gardner

Friday, November 19, 2010

What Do Our Students Do for Privacy?

Please note I am asking: “What do our students do for privacy?” and not what do they do with their privacy. This question is prompted by several events, one of them tragic, and the other a recent discussion I participated in about this tragedy.

I refer to the suicide death of a Rutgers University first-year student, a promising musician, who jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge earlier this fall. His self-inflicted death came subsequent to his enormous humiliation when his privacy was violated by two of his fellow students who surreptitiously filmed him in behaviors he thought he was engaging in privacy.

About 6 weeks later, I was attending a meeting of publishing editorial people at Bedford/St. Martins in Boston and we found ourselves discussing this tragedy and what it says about the need college students have for privacy.

One of the participants in that meeting, Bedford Editorial Assistant Karen Sikola, kindly forwarded to me subsequently the following quote from a recent edition of The New Yorker:

"Young people discovering their identity and their desires need a zone of privacy where they can be who they are, perhaps in the company of another human being, without feeling that somebody else might be tweeting it, filming it, or blogging about it, or that maybe they themselves ought to be—there’s such a thing as violating your own privacy, too. The unobserved life is so totally worth living." -Margaret Talbot


I really appreciated Karen sending me the above. Just think about this: “the unobserved life is so totally worth living.” This has really pushed my reflective capacities!

I reflected back to my own beginning college days. How I hated the old style “dorm” living and its total lack of privacy. As an upper middle class child I had had my own room, and my own bathroom and many other forms of “privacy.” Lack of privacy was a major adjustment for me in college. I also had to eat every meal communally with other people and couldn’t even do that privately. There was, in fact, very little that I could do privately.

But I could and did spend hours walking the beautiful brick streets and parks, and river banks, of the historic river town in Marietta, Ohio, where I was fortunate enough to go to college. Those walks were my private time. They were times for reflection, which often lead to important actions. My whole college experience would have been different had I not made an effort to find privacy and use it constructively.

So this brings me to today’s college students. Some questions:
1. What do they do for privacy?
2. Do they value it in their culture of share all and total transparency?
3. Given how totally and constantly “connected” they are, how do they find privacy should they seek it—that is privacy by means other than sleeping—i.e., awake privacy.
4. How could we inspire, encourage them to want to seek privacy as a context for their own development?
5. Could we provide any mental templates for use of the private time to structure some of their reflection?
6. How do we introduce to college students the merits of reflective thinking and teach and reward them for engaging in such?
7. One of the reasons I have been so drawn to service learning as a pedagogy is its inclusion of reflection as a mandatory component. How else could we be building reflection into our curricular—and co curricular learning contexts?
8. And finally, what do we need to do to protect students in their search for and use of their privacy?

So many good questions we need to be asking about our students, what they need, how we could or should support them.

-John N. Gardner

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Truly Invisible New Student

As I have written recently, I have just attended my forty-fifth college reunion. There I met a much more recent alum, a woman about 10 years out of college. We got to talking and after listening to me talk just a little bit about my work on behalf of first-year students, she asked me: “Well does your work do anything for students who have been raised in foster care?” I drew a total blank and responded in the negative.

She then asked me if I knew of any colleges in the US who had special initiatives to support the transition into college of first-year students who had been raised in foster care. She went on to explain to me that in many states these students are cut loose from state provided care at age 18 and left to fend for themselves.

I like to fancy myself as an advocate for unique cohorts of students in transition. But I had to admit that I had never given a moment of thought to the unique needs of this cohort of students in transition. And even worse, I couldn’t think of a college or university that has or does.

Just when I think this movement has really matured, I learn of another gaping hole in our first-year of college social safety net.

We are fond of using the metaphor of “family” to describe our campus cultures. But what a different meaning altogether this could and should take on for students have no family. How could I have gotten this far in this line of work for advocacy and social justice and never thought of this population? Here I have spent over four decades thinking about the normative cohort who have just been “released” from the prisons we call American high schools who come to us like ex cons going wild with their new found freedom. And I have never thought of those who have just been “released” from foster care”. How about you? What’s your level of awareness, let alone potential interest?

-John Gardner

Monday, November 15, 2010

Texting as Surrogate Touch

I am usually on at least one different campus a week and no matter where I may find myself, I always note the same: students walking around texting and/or talking on their hand held electronic devices.

I understand this. The allure of somebody reaching out to me to communicate something is indeed powerful. Somebody needs me. Somebody wants me. Somebody is giving me attention. I am noticed. I am affirmed. These are universal human needs and we have never before possessed such addictive ways of getting them met.

But I have to wonder if we could find other ways to meet student needs, to give them attention, reach out to them, affirm them, that might offset some of this constant need for electronic attention. I guess my even wondering about this reveals my nostalgia for days gone by when people on campus resorted to other means of communication. OK, let’s say I accept this new age with no resistance. As I move on I still want to ask: aren’t there other ways, more ways, that we could be paying attention to our students, letting them know they are noticed and important?

-John Gardner

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Character Building Experiences: Bring Back the Paper Person

And here is still another blog inspired by my participation in my just completed 45th college reunion.

Remember when this great country had what were called “paperboys?” You know, kids who delivered either morning or evening papers, through all kinds of weather, perfecting the art of the “toss” from their bicycle and saving their hard earned money for college.

I want to bring back paperboys, only I want them in the form of “paper persons” so that this noble adult-in-training temporary occupation is open to all young people, not just males. Just why am I thinking about this at all?

Well, two reasons really. For one thing, I am always thinking about what makes a student successful in college—or to lesser degrees the opposite. And while I think I really know most of what is to be known about this subject, I am always gaining new insights. This past weekend I had an experience to hear about and then think about a kind of father/son—parent/child experience that I am positive produced a successful college student and now citizen.

We all know what kinds of things the best parents do for their children, the examples they set, the sacrifices they make. I had occasion this weekend to talk to a friend of many years who came back to Homecoming at my alma mater, because her son had gone there, graduated ten years ago, and that son returned also this weekend to Homecoming to receive along with his wife, another graduate of alma mater, an outstanding young alumni award.

I have known this family for 25 years. And thus I have known this now 32-33 year old man since he was in elementary, middle school. And I remembered that when I first met him that he and his father had a paper route. Actually, it was the son’s paper route. But the father got up each morning to get his son up to start that route at 4.30 in the morning, no matter what the weather in the suburb of Cleveland, Ohio where they lived. Just think of that: a parent getting up every morning of the year, at that ghastly hour, from the child’s fifth through ninth grades. Just think of the discipline they both had. Just think of how they bonded. Just think of those early morning conversations.

I had the opportunity to talk to father and son extensively about this experience. I asked them what they would talk about on those early morning deliveries. And the son told me that his father would read to him from the newspapers to inform him of the news of the day.

And I learned that the son did save the money he earned—actually he “invested” it, in the stock market. And his father also taught him on those early morning deliveries the principles of investing, especially in stocks.

And I learned what he ultimately did with that money he had saved and invested: he bought a beautiful diamond wedding ring for his wife. And I saw that ring and her beaming loving face as we all recounted this story about how this was made possible. I also reflected that, in contrast, I was so opposed to wasteful spending on jewelry that my good wife, Betsy Barefoot, had to buy her own diamond ring!

This recounting of father/son bonding in the context of a paper route, made me reflect on my parenting of my son. Did I help him with a paper route? Not on your life. Could I have? Yes, but I didn’t. Never even occurred to me. I didn’t hunt with him, or fish, or talk sports. What did I do? I read to him. Helped him with his homework. But mostly, I talked to and with him, constantly, openly, sensitively, liberally, lovingly. Should I have engaged him in a character building experience like the parable of the paper route? Yes. I now wish I had and regret I can’t go back and do that over again.

While I can’t document this empirically of course, I am absolutely certain this paper route experience this young man had with his father helped make him what he has become. This makes me wonder if our attrition rate from college, that I have strived for decades to reduce, would be less if more of our students had had parent/child character building experiences. What can we inspire our college students to think about doing with their eventual children that would have the kind of impact this paper route with his loving father had on this young man? How can we inspire our students to be that unselfish? That disciplined? That patient? That mentoring? That able to turn a parent/child experience into such a powerful learning experience? I don’t know, but I am sure going to keep thinking about this. I will resort to any strategy to reduce attrition, as long as it is legal, ethical, and educationally substantive.

-John N. Gardner

Friday, November 5, 2010

Here’s to the Enduring Influence of the Faculty!

I find myself writing a series of posts inspired by my brief participation in my 45th college reunion. This one is about another type of influence faculty have on students, a very tangible and lasting one.

My alma mater is a small, private, liberal arts college. In the past decade four new buildings have been built which have transformed this little campus and insured its prosperity and educational effectiveness for many more years to come. I had the occasion to see these new buildings this past weekend and I took them in with a sense of wonderment, awe, pride, respect, and great appreciation to those who made them possible. And all these buildings were built due to the generosity of alumni who have cherished memories of their times at alma mater, and especially of their faculty who were the ultimate inspiration of these gifts.

I find myself writing a series of posts inspired by my brief participation in my 45th college reunion. This one is about another type of influence faculty have on students, a very tangible and lasting one.

My alma mater is a small, private, liberal arts college. In the past decade four new buildings have been built which have transformed this little campus and insured its prosperity and educational effectiveness for many more years to come. I had the occasion to see these new buildings this past weekend and I took them in with a sense of wonderment, awe, pride, respect, and great appreciation to those who made them possible. And all these buildings were built due to the generosity of alumni who have cherished memories of their times at alma mater, and especially of their faculty who were the ultimate inspiration of these gifts.

I have often reminded administrators that by and large students don’t come back to see them at Homecoming. It’s the faculty they return to see—and their fellow students of course.

I know we don’t think of the faculty as the lead development officers, as the people who bring in the bucks. But at my alma mater they certainly have been. In the past decade, in large part due to the enormous generosity generated by five faculty, four magnificent new buildings have come on line as the result of four donors and their abiding love for certain facult: a new library, new science building, new taj mahal rec center, and a planetarium. One of these buildings is even named for the two faculty that inspired the donor.

Just what is it that the faculty do for students who when they become really wealthy would want to give back in such a manner?

• The faculty were always there for these former students. They were in their offices available, willing, and interested to talk. And they did talk with these students.
• They had these students into their homes for meals and conversation and fellowship with their families.
• They encouraged, praised, pushed, prodded, affirmed, consoled, cheered, supported, guided, supported these former students.
• They liberated these students intellectually.
• They inspired these students to make a difference in the lives of others.
• They inspired these students to hang in there, stick it out.
• They never doubted these students.
• They were always there when needed.
• They maintained interest in these students for a lifetime.
• They showed these students how to return the gift.

Of course the modern college hires a cohort of professional development officers. But the ones that really bring in the bucks are the faculty. For this reason alone, how can colleges in good sense take any actions that actually offer disincentives to faculty to engage in more faculty-student contact? All this emphasis on pursuit of more research dollars now, which often takes time away from students now, is just one more example of the corporatization of the academy. It is an example of short range money making strategies, for reporting to the next meeting of the board. I can’t but wonder if this doesn’t interfere though with the long range funding interests of the institution, those gifts that will surely roll in years later, if only we have intentionally developed a campus culture where the faculty are allowed to do what they do best under ideal circumstances: serve as the real development officers.

-John N. Gardner

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

For Campuses Who Can’t Go Greek, How Can They Do Greek?

Approximately a year ago, I posted a blog where I reflected on fall being the traditional time in the traditional American college for “homecoming,” I recognized that this cultural ritual of students returning to alma mater to have reunions with former faculty and fellow students, really is an anachronism in the new American colleges which serve large numbers of “swirling”, transfer, non-traditional students. I asked what would it take to bring today’s students back for such reunions and develop similar powerful affinities with their former colleges? So I am not going to ask that now, although I am reflecting on that again.

This is prompted by my participation recently in my 45th class reunion, for the Class of 1965 at Marietta College. And I was reminded again of what powerful loyalties such colleges and their rituals and ceremonies evoke. I certainly am influenced by this culture. This time I took special notice of the lasting influence on former students of their “Greek” experience.

I don’t think I have missed a five year reunion marker since I graduated in 1965. I am really hooked on these things. And I have known for decades both intellectually and personally about the power of the so-called “greek” social groups on American college campuses. Even though their student membership numbers have been in free fall for the past several decades, their remaining numbers continue to exercise an influence on campus culture far greater than their mere numbers would suggest. Why are their raw numbers declining? Primarily cost. But in addition, parents of traditional aged college students, and many students themselves, are concerned about the image of such groups and attendant liability risks. And many students conclude they don’t need such groups to have a good social life. And now there are many other opportunities on campus for students to socialize with fellow students with whom they would constitute a homogenous group in terms of special interests.

At my most recent reunion I was reminded again of these impacts/outcomes for fraternity/sorority membership:

1. Identity formation---once a “(fill in the blank with greek letters), always one.
2. Powerful lifelong friendships
3. Powerful business ties
4. Enduring impact of behaviors, skills, and values learned in the organizational culture
5. Higher levels of loyalty and continuing affinity with alma mater as alumni
6. Higher giving levels by alumni
7. They learned in such groups how to do what they do now for a living: running America’s for-profit businesses.

I realize I may be coming across as being very detached and analytical about this. So let me disclose that I did not join a greek group in college. But I did in my later career at the University of South Carolina where I served as faculty advisor to the chapter of Delta Upsilon for 16 years. During that time I allowed them to “initiate” me so I became a “brother”.

Even though I am concerned about the downsides of membership in such groups (e.g. increased probability of alcohol abuse) I am very interested in generating some of the outcomes for greek students for all students, such as increased retention/graduation rates, increased alumni giving etc. But, the reality is that the replication of such groups in many of America’s contemporary is just not realistic. Students in commuter colleges cannot afford such groups, either their membership fees or the time commitments—and these are only the two most compelling reasons. In other words, these colleges can’t possibly “go greek”.

But could they “do greek”? What could possibly be some group affiliation experiences that we could create in commuter colleges that serve many non-traditional students? Or should we not even try? Is this a futile exercise that reveals just one more way the rich get richer in America---by going to colleges which offer such opportunities for socialization into the American college and corporate culture?

We know that joining co-curricular groups has been a powerful predictor of retention and graduation in traditional colleges for both white and African American greek students. Students can join groups in non traditional colleges. We know of the power of just joining study groups; of participating in “learning communities”; and engaging in service learning/community service in commuter colleges. But the fact that we can’t realistically offer the greek group experience is one more way we perpetuate a culture of less advantage in non traditional colleges.

I wish I had any answer, let alone an easy answer to this question: how can commuter colleges offer powerful group experiences for their students? Generate high levels of friendship, bonding, affinity? I have visited many commuter colleges where I do see and interact with students in powerful group experiences. But there just hasn’t been the effort to intentionally create such group opportunities on a deliberate effort of this scale. This is regrettable. We must do better.

-John Gardner

Monday, November 1, 2010

I Have Seen the Future and it is Here # 2

Recently, I wrote about a late September visit I made to McAllen, Texas and South Texas College; and shared my observations that the demographics I saw there, with the attendant inspiring energy and hopefulness of the new immigrants I observed, and how they were transforming higher education in the region. For this post, I report on a more recent opportunity to see another glimpse of the future, which is also already here.

This academic year, I have the privilege of advising three constituent colleges of the City University of New York, all in the same borough of the city, the Bronx: Bronx Community College, Hostos Community College, and Lehman College. The latter college is what in CUNY speak is known as the “senior college” and receives transfer students from the other two borough feeder colleges. Together we are working to improve both the success of “native” students and transfer students. The two community colleges are engaged in our Foundations of Excellence self study and planning process to improve the performance of their new students. But Lehman is engaged in our Foundations of Excellence “Transfer Focus” to improve the success of transfer students coming to Lehman from Bronx and Hostos Community Colleges. Together, these three colleges and our Institute have a great opportunity to improve the public good in this dynamic borough of the city of New York.

The future I saw, now the present reality at Lehman, defies the stereotypical, historical picture of what our colleges do. The lay public view of American higher education, unfortunately, is still that the academy is predominantly for students who come to college, stay four years, live on campus, get a degree and move on. My readers know this doesn’t square with reality. Exhibit A: Lehman is the new transfer institution. It’s now archetypal student is the transfer student. Last fall it admitted approximately 850 “new” students and approximately 1850 transfer students. To say that it is dependent on transfer students is an understatement.

Lehman, of course, is not unique in this regard. But it is quite unique in its current commitment to develop a coherent plan to improve the performance of its new majority: transfer students.

It has been my experience in many such institutions, where the transfer students now outnumber native students, that the dominant culture of such institutions (Lehman excepted) is still one organized for native students and where the assumption is they still predominate, even though they don’t in numbers, but do in influence. This is an example of colleges acting like the colleges they used to be, not the colleges they have actually become. Surely we can do better.

Admittedly, this is a complex problem (understatement). We cannot improve US graduation rates unless we improve degree attainment by transfer students. But colleges don’t receive public recognition for such a commitment because retention and graduation rates of transfer students don’t “count” in the Federal government’s tracking system for public reporting. The end results of this is that colleges court transfer students for their body count and tuition, fee, and funding formula dollars, admit them, but then largely neglect them and leave them to sink or swim in a college culture designed for native students. The end result is an enormous set of challenges for students seeking transfer, particularly in obtaining equitable and consistent treatment for transfer of credits. Unfortunately, in most states, rather than having transfer being systematized so that it is predictable and equitable, instead it is unpredictable, ad hoc, inconsistent, and often capricious and arbitrary, leaving enormous autonomy and power to individual faculty at “receiving” colleges to determine award of transfer students on an individual case by case basis. The potential for abuse based on prejudice in this model is enormous.

And what if we don’t get a handle on this situation, what are the predictable outcomes?
1. Graduation rates cannot improve
2. The US will never recover its primacy in world college completion rates
3. Litigation will increase; class action suits by students are inevitable
4. Legislative intrusion is also inevitable
5. We will like less the legislatively imposed fixes than the ones we could have worked out ourselves.
6. Proprietary colleges will continue to use the transfer problems as a marketing bonanza, recruit these students that the four-year public colleges erect barriers to, and then turn around and charge these transfers much higher fees, using up more of our federal aid dollars, and greatly increasing the debt levels of these less fortunate students. When proprietary colleges market that they are more transfer friendly, they do so accurately and ethically.
7. Ironically, private not-for-profit colleges, the smart ones, the ones not inhibited by prejudice towards transfers, will continue to help take up the slack.

Regarding points 1-6 above, surely we can—and must do better.

-John N. Gardner

Monday, October 25, 2010

It’s All About Social Justice

 I often wonder, as do all educators, what really sticks with a class or an audience? I really pour myself into both the preparation for and delivery of a classroom, workshop presentation or speech. Usually, I get some kind of verbal and written feedback. But I have to wonder, what is it that really might last? When I lived in South Carolina, which is like one great big extended family reunion, where everyone knows everyone, I used to run into my former students constantly, never failed. Good thing I was always on my best behavior and a good ambassador for the University! After hundreds of these kinds of serendipitous meetings and exchanges I came to conclude that what my students remembered most, was me, and especially what I stood for, some kind of core values. And for many of them, they found me quite different in that regard.

A few months ago I did an all day workshop with my wife, Betsy Barefoot, and at the end of the day, one of the participants gave me verbal feedback that what I had done/said that day that had meant the most to her was sharing a personal statement of my philosophy of education (about which I have blogged previously).

Recently, I gave a speech and several members of my audience told me in strongly worded statements of appreciative feedback that what really grabbed them was my reminding them that the bottom line of what all our work on student success is about, what it all comes down to, is social justice.

I reminded this audience that the movement for “student success” grew out of the convergence and interaction of multiple parallel historical and social movements in the early 1970’s:
* the civil rights movement
* the women’s rights movement
* the anti-war movement
* the students’ rights movement
* and more specifically: the desegregation of US higher education, and the implementation of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Higher Education Act (especially Title IV to provide Federal financial aid)

All of these can be described in summary as a grand national effort, albeit an incomplete experiment, to bring social justice to more of our citizens (and now recent immigrants who are not yet citizens).

And this effort to promote social justice through higher education is not done. It is ongoing, needed as much, and in some ways, more than ever. So, yes indeed, social justice is what this is all about.

I wish more of us would use this language more often. Given the political polarization of our country and the hi-jacking by the right wing of previously respected concepts and ways of thinking (such as “liberal”), most of our higher education leaders are so careful in their chosen public utterances that they rarely use this language. What a shame. This is still what it is all about.

So let’s hear it for social justice.

-John N. Gardner


Friday, October 22, 2010

15 Triggers for Discussion

Recently a special colleague of mine who was organizing the First Annual Conference on Student Success held at the University of Massachusetts, about which I wrote recently, asked me to provide a talk but in a new and very challenging context for me: with a very strict time limit. The idea was I was to have only fifteen minutes. And further, I was to present catalysts, “triggers” for interaction, conversation to follow.

So I had to ask myself what I could say very concisely that reflected ideas/topics I was thinking about, working on in my professional life. This turned out to be an interesting exercise for me to construct such a list. And I recommend that you consider doing the same. You could even shorten the list. What are the ten (or five or fifteen) big ideas that you are focusing on in your work; or that you think your institution should be focusing on. As an illustration, here is my list that I recently offered. I am sure that this would change on any given occasion that I might be given this opportunity. Your list also should always be dynamic. I invite you to compare yours with mine. Here goes:

Fifteen Minutes: Fifteen Triggers for a Dialogue on Improving Student Success
1. It all comes down to your values: The first-year matters!
2. And, yes, there is a sophomore slump!
3. The transfer student experience has become normative; transfer students are a cohort about which little is understood and towards which much prejudice is directed.
4. The Senior Year Experience is needed too! Some students are never over the hump.
5. Where does your campus stand with respect to offering the three most validated retention generating interventions: first-year seminars, learning communities, and Supplemental Instruction?
6. What is needed is “challenge and support,” and more of each! Engagement is all about raising expectations and achieving greater time on task.
7. All students are “developmental.” All are at risk. We must improve the status of “developmental education.”
8. What’s wrong with this picture? We search for the holy grail of retention, even though it is merely a minimum standard.
9. In contrast: pursuit of educational excellence and the need for aspirational standards.
10. Want to improve retention? The latest powerfully documented intervention – the latest big idea: you need a plan. And then you need to implement the plan to a high degree (yielding 8.2% increase in retention). “Programs” are necessary but not sufficient. We have to transcend mere “programs” and make these plans part of the overall vision, part of the institutional strategic plan.
11. Re-examine policies that at one time made eminent good sense but now may have outlived their usefulness: “Waiting for Napoleon” as an illustration of the need to do a “policy audit” and for focusing on what you can control
12. You have to have a manageable focus for improvement efforts. Try the five highest enrollment courses with parallel redesign for high DWFI rate courses
13. Show me your list of institutional standing committees and I will know what you value. Each campus needs a standing group to advocate for first-year students.
14. Go after the “low hanging fruit.”
15. One person can make a huge difference

-John N. Gardner

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

What Would it Take?

I am writing this post on an airplane flying back across the Atlantic from a wonderful 10 day vacation with my wife, Betsy Barefoot. We have been in France precisely because it is the “Old Europe” at its best, just what Donald Rumsfeld so despised. But it is also a country well known for its propensity for wild cat strikes, protests and civil disobedience. And we certainly picked a good week to be reminded of this long tradition. And this was the first October vacation I have ever taken since becoming an academic 44 years ago.

Ah, the spirit of the French Revolution lives on, especially in the young people, university students, who despair of losing the French way of life: the 35 hour work week, an enormous number of paid holidays, and full retirement benefits at age 60. France’s Prime Minister has caused a firestorm by requesting the National Assembly to approve legislation raising that retirement age to 62 and this has unleashed a tumult of strikes and protests. While we were there last week, a serious fuel shortage developed disrupting air service, road travel, and other unions launched a devastating series of rolling strikes of the railroads. To put it mildly, daily life became totally unpredictable. But this set me wondering.

First of all, there’s a warning here for any American politician who would drastically meddle with the people’s entitlements!

But what about American university students? What would send them into the streets opposing something? It has long appeared to me that they will put up with just about anything. At least they Tea Partyers are out protesting. Sure, we do have student activists in our country, but they strike me as a passive lot compared to what I just observed during my visit in France. What could possibly get them stirred up?

Not the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. Not the President’s proposed plan to eliminate the Bush era tax cuts for the wealthiest of taxpayers. Not the Obama administration’s clamp down on proprietary schools which educate about 10% of our students but absorb about 25% of our federal financial aid budget. Not the Republicans’ blockage of any more stimulus money which might jolt the economy back to life and provide some jobs for recent college graduates. Not any of the many state and local actions being taken to restrict illegal immigrants, all in the absence of federal policy. Not the Administration’s new health care legislation which will ultimately mandate current students after college and age 26 to purchase health insurance. Just what will it take?

I remember what it took: the draft. How I long for the return of the draft. I would love to see the students out in the streets again. I would love to see the children of our Congressional leaders subject to the draft. But that’s a pipe dream, John. Our students have been co-opted. They’ve bought in.

I am definitely concerned about the level of anger I see in my fellow citizens; and it dismays me. Some of it I feel is entirely justified. But I don’t see much of it in our students. What would so anger them that they would be moved to action?

So I return to the question. What will it take? I don’t know. I just don’t know.

-John Gardner

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Movement is Spreading and Deepening

A sign of the institutionalizing of any educational reform movement, of course, is the spreading and deepening of the activity in terms of adoption and success. The “movement” I am most interested in is the so-called “first-year experience” or “college success” or “student success” movements, which I am sometimes credited with launching. I did play a role in that, for sure, but I certainly had a great deal of help, especially from my colleagues at the University of South Carolina, and later from the Institute which I founded.

One manifestation of this “spreading and deepening” is the slow but gradual proliferation of state and regional convenings of higher educators that I and my two non-profit organizations focused on student success have NOT organized and hosted.

There are such initiatives flourishing now in the states of Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, New Jersey, and Ohio; and now a newcomer, but a real “comer”—in Massachusetts which is a gathering for the entire New England region.

I participated in the First Annual New England Student Success Conference, organized by my friends Robert Feldman and Mark Lange and their outstanding team at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. There first gathering was held on October 8 and had as an original planning goal 250 attendees. It was “sold out” and “closed” at 300. Talk about demand. When I left the meeting, the organizers were already planning next year’s gathering. If you are interested you should contact either of those gentlemen. I recommend you request from them a link to the session materials. I attended two sessions which were both outstanding: one by a splendid team from Framingham State University who illustrated how to translate a complex action improvement plan into sustained implementation to reap increased student success and retention (about10%); and the second by Jane Wellman, the provocative and profound scholar of higher education cost assessment. We all need to take her advice and start assessing the cost benefits of our first-year initiatives and we will be inspired by the results of her model for doing so.

I think it is most fitting that the region where “the first year” in American higher education began in 1636 has its own “network” for which the foundational steps were laid at this first meeting. There is nothing like local grass roots action to institutionalize any movement.

Congratulations from a recovering former Yankee to my New England colleagues who are moving to the next level in promoting student success.

-John N. Gardner

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Most Inspiring Meeting I Attend All Year

There is no doubt about it, I am a conference junkie. And the best meeting I attend on an annual basis is one with a rather non attention grabbing name: the Foundations of Excellence Winter Meeting. My criteria for “the best” is really twofold: the inspiration and gratification I receive from attending.

So, what is this “Winter Meeting”? Well, it is an annual convening of institutional teams from two and four-year colleges and universities, who either have been or are currently participants in the Foundations of Excellence self-study and action planning process to improve new and/or transfer student success. At this meeting we bring together higher educators who have both developed and implemented the Foundations of Excellence Action Plan and integrate them with those that are just going through the planning process. We want the former cohort to inspire and mentor the latter, and they do. And they all inspire me, the veterans and the novitiates.

We have had 167 institutions go through this planning process and are working with 35 more this year. Recent externally conducted research on Foundations of Excellence outcomes, as I have written about previously, has determined that for those institutions that create the FoE Action Plan and then implement it to a high degree, realize in the aggregate, an 8.2% increase in retention. Amazing, but it’s happening.

This year we are encouraging fellow educators who have not yet participated in Foundations of Excellence to participate in the annual Winter Meeting. I predict they will be inspired to emulate the big idea—whether they do the big idea with us or not. So this invitation is not shameless commerce. The big idea of course is to develop a plan for institutional improvement and then actually implement it!

The Winter Meeting will be held this year on Friday, February 4 in Atlanta. Click here for more information. February is the time of the winter doldrums. We all need to be rejuvenated and that is a great time and a promising context. Trust me.

-John N. Gardner

Monday, October 11, 2010

Reflecting on the Tragedy at Rutgers: A Tragedy for All

It is not as if we need any reminders that our campuses are not the sanctuaries we would like them to be. I hope all of my readers are thinking about how this tragic suicide of the Rutgers first-year student after a fellow roommate outed him by grossly violating the privacy and dignity of another human being, applies to your campus situation, and your ability to influence anything for students. Sadly, this is an extraordinary teachable moment.

There are so many issues raised by this chain of events. In retrospect, they remind me of a teachable moment I had in a first-year seminar once that fortunately, did not end in tragedy. But it did raise the issue of homophobia on the college campus.

One class day in my teaching of University 101 at the University of South Carolina, I took my class of 20 some students to an annual event: the Student Activities Fair. This was an opportunity for new students to meander around a large exhibit area in the student center ballroom, where over 400 clubs and organizations had set up booths to explain their purposes and activities to interested prospective student members. I took my students there as a way of helping them make a decision about how to fulfill a course requirement I had long imposed.

The requirement was that each student join at least one co-curricular organization; show me some form of proof of membership; and write me at the end of term a short paper documenting the value of this membership, what had been learned so far, etc. I had instituted this requirement after learning about research outcomes documenting the correlation between joining such organizations, as long as the activities were legal and sanctioned by the institution, and retention.

So, one beautiful fall day I took the class to the Activities Fair. They were allowed to mill around for an hour or so and then I led them back to our classroom (the class met once a week for three hours). Upon returning to that space, I asked them my favorite question after any experiential learning activity (a question they already had learned to predict I would ask): “What did you learn?”

Without any hesitancy, an eighteen year old white male shot up his hand and I called on him. His response: “I learned that I didn’t respect you any more!”

Naturally, I wanted to draw him out, instantly sensing this could be an extraordinary teachable moment but having no idea where this comment came from or could go.

He explained to me and the class: “Until I went to this event I thought you liked girls”

And I then asked what I had done that made him think I did not “like girls”

And he elaborated that this perception changing event had been the following: “Well, you see I saw you standing for the longest time talking to the students at the Gay Lesbian group table and I could tell you knew them and were enjoying talking with them.”

Well, what I had intended for the class topic to be, the merits of joining a co-curricular organization, and which ones to consider, suddenly became a very new topic for the day: the status and nature of homophobia on that particular campus.

What ensued was one of the most powerful class discussions of my career. I followed the discussion by making the students write a reflection paper on what they had observed and learned from the discussion. A common theme was an increased understanding of the correlation between homophobia and race, ethnicity and gender---with the most homophobic being the white males. This is, of course, only one of many observations and insights to be derived from the Rutgers tragedy.

Blog postings are not meant to be forums for exhaustive examinations of any topic. So I will leave this now, but again with the exhortation, that you do something in your higher education setting to mark this dark event for all of us in the academy and somehow turn it into a learning experience that could be converted into action towards a more humane campus environment and society.

-John Gardner

Friday, October 8, 2010

I Have Seen the Future and the Future is Us

I have visited over 500 campuses in my career and after visiting a place I always leave with some kind of dominant impressions implanted in my brain. Last week I had such an occasion.

I visited McAllen, Texas, and South Texas College. McAllen is a border city with Mexico, in a region just inland from the coast and known as “The Valley,” south of Houston. While Texas has had community colleges for decades and some really big and prosperous ones in Houston and Dallas for example, this community did not get a community college until 1993 when South Texas College was founded with a founding President, Shirley Reid.

The assumption had been amongst Texans with the power of the purse, that this region didn’t really need a community college. Why after all, these locals, large numbers of them from recently across the border, were just going to be laborers at best anyway. So why bother? Thank goodness that has changed.

Before the college was founded, unemployment ran as high as the mid 40’s. Now, while admittedly the community has been negatively impacted by the Great Recession and the fears of cross border drug related crime, nevertheless, graduates from the College are finding employment in highly remunerative fields which are providing entre into the great American middle class.

But what amazed me the most was this: from zero students in 1993, the enrollment is now in excess of 30,000 students, with over 2000 employees at six different locations. The College held all campuses convocation to hear an annual address from their firebrand leader and there was no room large enough on any campus to accommodate all the employees.

While in town I took a late afternoon jog in the mid 90’s late September heat. I do this to stay ahead of all the young people who want to take my place. Actually, it wasn’t so bad. There was a lovely tropical breeze blowing off the not too distant water. I ran on the shady side of the main street, maybe 20 blocks up and back and passed many other pedestrians like myself. The city was bustling and I heard much conversation, but not a word in English. And I was the outsider. I was the “minority.” I rarely am that, but know what to do as I lived in Canada for five years when I was a kid and truly learned what it meant to be a “minority.”

So what did I see and learn on this visit and run? I learned that McAllen and South Texas College are the future. The future is here and it is us. We are creating a whole new kind of country.

And I loved observing the indigenous. All the working people I interacted with in the hotel and restaurants and then on the campus—well, they had hustle. They were finding dignity in their opportunities, their work, their roles. They showed initiative, respect, manners. They were gracious. It made me want to come back. It made me optimistic about our future. I’m glad I went.

-John Gardner

Monday, October 4, 2010

Memories are made of this!

There is no denying it, my 25 years as a director and professor in a first-year seminar program and course had a great deal of influence on my understanding of and thinking about college students, and the larger academy. But for the last eleven years my work has been focused laser like on the larger higher education community and how to improve how it influences student success. However, I still find myself constantly thinking of ways to directly influence students. And the other day I had another inspiration in this regard. So this blog is really going to return me, very briefly, to my days as a first-year seminar instructor when I was constantly looking for new pedagogies of engagement.

For six years at USC I worked with another full professor, Jerry Jewler, to co-direct University 101. Jerry came up with many wonderful ideas to strengthen our course. And one of them was the concept of “weekly letters.” Now keep in mind this was in the era (1983-89) prior to e-mail. And while we had long practiced “journaling” in our University 101 course, Jerry adapted this to the idea of having each student write their instructor a “weekly letter,” the old fashioned way. And the instructor would “frame” the focus of the letter. Each letter was required to be no longer than one page, have an introductory paragraph, body and conclusion. And each instructor was required to read the letters and return same, manually, to the students at the next class period, with feedback. The whole point of this was to use this writing as a personal and private platform by which to develop a relationship and also to be a kind of “early warning system” to alert the instructors to potential problems for which some kind of intervention might be appropriate.

One opening fall term, I asked the students to write their weekly letter on this topic: “What is the most significant thing that happened to you during your first week at the University?” Two of my students wrote that their most significant experience had been that they had been raped. How would I have known had I not asked?

Where in the world am I going with this blog? Well, to the present, and then back to the past, and then to the future.

The other day I received in the mail from a dear “kissing” cousin of mine, a woman about 70, a packet of handwritten letters, which she had discovered in a treasure trove of materials set aside in an attic by her late mother, my former aunt. These letters were those I had written my aunt in my later high school years, first year of college, senior year, first year of graduate school, Air Force days, spanning not quite a decade.
At first I was reluctant to even look at one. But then my wife, Betsy Barefoot, started reading them one by one, and quoting from them liberally. So I got my courage up and ventured in myself.

I have found this to be an extraordinarily powerful and meaningful experience. As I have written previously, I know I am “aging into wisdom.” But then isn’t that an objective of all stages of education?
I had all kinds of reactions:

1. What I know now that I didn’t know then.

2. Then the jury was out; now it is in.

3. What were my developmental issues then; how was I handling them?

4. My attitudes and outlooks struck me as the same as they are today.

5. Character gets formed early and deeply.

6. Communication is a lifetime pattern. I communicated then as I do now.

7. I really cared about relationships. And I still do.

8. And more.

As I was reading these I couldn’t help but think: wouldn’t this make a wonderful exercise for students in a first-year seminar course? Have them write some “letters” (e-mail would be fine) to people in their lives whom the students would ask to save these messages and at some later point in life share them back with the sending student. Part of the value of this, of course, would be the thought process the student would have to go through now to tell the significant others just what they, the students, thought was the impact, meaning, import, of the college experience now. Of course, this is a strategy to engender a more powerful and deeper learning: reflection.

I suspect that students would enjoy both the initial process and then the retrospective years later. And they would obtain additional practice in reflective writing. They can never write enough, or too much. That was and is a core belief of Jerry Jewler and me.
John N. Gardner

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Where are the Men? Not Dealing with the Male Problem!

It seems to me that for the past several decades I have become so accepting of this campus demographic characteristic that I often don’t even notice any more. Where are the men?

Recently, as I was starting my late summer vacation on September 2, and setting aside my efforts to keep up with my blog for several weeks, I happened to glance (which I rarely do) at USA Today. And in the “Money” section, page one, below the fold, was the feature story “Single Women Out-Earn Single Men in Metro Areas.”

The article went on to report ten major metropolitan areas where the percentage by which median full-time wages for single, childless women, ages 22-30, exceeds those of single childless men in the same age group—and these percentages ranged from a low of 12% to 21%. The cities cited were: Atlanta, Memphis, New York, Sacramento, San Diego, Miami, Charlotte, Raleigh Durham, Los Angeles and Phoenix. So what was the big explanatory variable? No question, by far, the amount of education completed.

This was not “news” for me. It was simply confirmatory of the patterns I have been observing for decades on my own campus and almost every one I ever visit.

Who is more likely to go to college?
Be retained in college?
Graduate from college?
Assume leadership of student organizations?
Volunteer to serve other students and community members?
Take advantage of opportunities for extra credit, initiative, etc?
Who is less likely to vandalize institutional property, drink excessively, or sexually assault another student?

On a campus visit I made almost twenty years ago in a focus group of campus leaders, all volunteers, and almost totally devoid of men, I asked “And where are the men?” One female student responded: “Sex, sports and booze, that’s where they are!”

And then I think: well, who runs the majority of campuses anyway? Still men. Surely they see what I see. So why don’t they do anything.

Perhaps they are afraid of their feminist colleagues who, like my smart and very fair wife, Betsy Barefoot, have little sympathy for these men who aren’t making it and who rightfully ask why we should have such sympathy for men when they still run the country and had the same opportunities, actually greater opportunities than the women.

But this issue of less functional men surely has to be difficult for us men to want to recognize, accept as a significant and harmful trend, and attempt to respond to in some concrete manner. Occasionally, I do hear of institutions that have launched “male initiatives.” And I have visited a few, such as Medgar Evers College and Hobart and Williams Smith Colleges. But they are still a rare minority.

I know I have this habit, as do all bloggers, of raising very profound subjects in a medium in which it is impossible to do them justice. Clearly this is one.

In conclusion, this non scholarly report, was just the latest clue that has registered with me that we really do have a problem here. The “retention problem” on which I have spent so much of my career energy is really a male problem, and not the kind for urological treatment.

I am going to keep trumpeting this male problem. Please join me.

-John N. Gardner

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Small Colleges Can Be Inspiring

This week on Sept 22-23, my wife, Betsy Barefoot, and I spent working with teams from 36 independent North Carolina Colleges, all of them members of the North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities. It was an inspiration—not that we were an inspiration for them, but them for us.

Betsy and I are both graduates of independent colleges, she from an elite one in North Carolina, Duke, and me from one that is not elite, but a fine place nevertheless, Marietta College in Ohio. While I like to think I really understand the small, independent college culture, I still got a powerful reminder yesterday of their cultural attributes which I can never be reminded of too much.

Our focus was on the importance of academic advisement. And the conference was held on the campus of Elon University. Talk about not needing a reminder! I send a contribution to Elon every year to continue my practice of “giving thanks,” as I have learned to say in the South, to Elon for the marvelous academic advising it provided my son, Jonathan Gardner, during his four years there from 1994-98. Yes, I am still sending them money in honor of his two academic advisors, one his faculty advisor, and one his professional staff advisor. So one of my criteria, for what I have developed and call an aspirational plan for outstanding academic advising, is that a campus create the kind of advising culture whereby graduates and their family members will contribute years later in memory and appreciation of the outstanding academic advisement they received.

I believe that independent colleges are especially well suited to deliver this kind of promise and outcome. I think that what especially amazed and inspired me in the course of spending two days immersed in this culture, was how much these educators can and do with so little money. Incredible. This reminds me that some of the most important things students need, like attention and affirmation, and just good counsel, don’t necessarily take money. I was reminded of how student centered these places are. How entrepreneurial they are! How risk-taking they are. How extensive is the experimentation they are engaged in to find new ways to promote student success. How much encouragement senior administrators give to subordinates to bring good ideas to them to find a way to support and try out.

Much as it saddens me to see the ravages of the Great Recession on our public campuses, and the resulting impact of cuts on support for functions like advising, I do see this as an opportunity for independent colleges to further accentuate their strengths and differences.
Now, as a point of perspective, I hasten to add that I was a full-time employee in public higher education for 32+ years and we are doing many good things for students too.

But there really isn’t anything quite like this independent college culture. And I believe the existence in our country of a higher education sector comprised most broadly of not-for-profit colleges of both public and private control, is good for both sectors. Our differences help keep us honest, and on our toes. And we all benefit from the awareness of the other. I know that I benefitted from the inspiration Betsy and I received from our North Carolina independent college colleagues sharing with us how much they do on so relatively little.

-John Gardner

Friday, September 24, 2010

Freedom: A Subject for More than Just a Common Read

I have recently returned from an eleven day vacation that was wonderful in part because I had such a change of pace. And while I love my normal non vacation “pace,” this change was refreshing. And one thing I did much more of was just pleasure reading—3 books in 11 days. And one of them was this recent “hot” book Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. And I would recommend it for my readers.

I would recommend it not just because it is receiving a tremendous amount of current “play” but because it is just a good read, entertaining, insightful, provocative, and an incentive to personal reflection. I would also recommend it as a potential “common read” or “summer read” for entering college students. I say this because the book is about what I have always believed is the number one personal challenge for entering college students: the problem of freedom, freedom being an environmental characteristic which great colleges and universities give students a massive amount of, and more than many can handle.

As I have written in a previous blog, it was not until my own first college year, when I was made to read as a form of punishment, a book about the burden of freedom, the difficulties many people have in using it wisely, that I realized what an issue it was for me personally, and how it was shaping my own transition to college.

For me, this is an example of the lifetime impact of college. From that first year on, the question of the choices I make with my freedom is one I constantly reflect on, revisit, rethink, and also cherish. I have been so fortunate in my life and career to have been granted so much freedom, not only by my society, but also especially by my career employer, the University of South Carolina. Were it not for that, it, them, I would not have been empowered to create the first-year experience movement.

Anyway, this book, Freedom, is about the role of freedom on many levels: in an extended family—the choices they make; about how freedom is exercised by some college students who are characters of interest; the uses our country made of its freedom during the two Bush presidencies and how those choices affected this particular family and the country at large and more examples too. I believe that most entering college students could handle this work and see some of themselves and their families in it.

Over four decades of work in the academy, I have certainly learned more and more about what are the variables that either promote and/or impeded college student success. But my thesis that the use of freedom is the number one developmental challenge is still my number one choice for THE influencer. Freedom, of course, is all about purpose: the purposes of our students, families, institutions, and country. And it takes a great college education to empower and further free our students personally and intellectually to help them see the synergy between all those different manifestations of freedom and its associated choices—and obligations. So I recommend Freedom to you and your students.

-John  Gardner

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Optimism: How are we going to teach it this year?

One of the ways I try to live my mental life is to avoid letting commercials register on my consciousness. To achieve this aspiration it means I watch absolutely no commercial television; try not to read billboards and ignore print ads. Admittedly, it is very hard to ignore these damn things.

Today, I failed while in an airport. I noticed a billboard featuring Michael J. Foxx which communicated his courageous optimism that Parkinson’s can be beaten. For some reason this led me to think about levels of optimism in this year’s crop of new college students.

Perhaps I made this association because I have heard several anecdotal reports over the past few days of declines in community college enrollments this fall. These may be a mere blip of an exception to the pattern we have been seeing. But what has particularly caught my attention is the hypothesis being offered that students are so pessimistic about the economy that they simply don’t see the value of starting college because they do not believe there will be jobs for them if and when they finish. So why take on all the debt and work?

Optimism, of course, is an essential part of the American ethos. It is fundamental to who we think we are. This makes me wonder this year, who is going to be more or less optimistic and what are the behavior patterns that college students are going to exhibit towards the growing sense of pessimism about “the new normal?”

At the risk of great oversimplification, I predict that the female students are going to work even harder, take even greater advantage of optional opportunities that colleges offer than they have been doing—all in contrast to male students. And, as for the them, I predict that we will see far more hedonistic behaviors—and to evoke that wonderful metaphor that Art Levine used several decades ago in his book When Dreams and Heroes Died: A Portrait of Today’s College Student, the image of college students partying on the deck of the Titanic.

So if we wanted to encourage or students this year of all years, to take more advantage of all the opportunities that college still holds out for the, how would we do that?

I have observed enough campus cultures to know that some have the culture of learned optimism, and some the opposite, learned helplessness. While I find that financial resources are related in some respects they are in no ways determinative.

Of course, it all starts with the attitudes of campus leaders. How can we project optimism and still be realistic and pragmatic? And it has to do with institutionalized core values that are public, prominent, and intentionally taught. Rituals matter too, rituals that inculcate students to consider lives of purpose and meaning that transcend their own individual measures of success. But where this optimism can be most directly taught is in the learning interaction settings where faculty and staff interact with students. This all comes down to you, me, us. And this year, we are needed more than ever.

-John N. Gardner