Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Happy Valley is Not the Norm

On Christmas Eve, as I was shoveling snow from my western North Carolina mountain top driveway, I was also entertained by my faithful NPR, and, in particular, an Ira Glass segment from “This American Life” focusing on the binge drinking culture at Pennsylvania State University. Even for a seasoned higher education administrator such as myself, with over three decades experience at a similar type institution—i.e. residential, Division I intercollegiate revenue sports, with a strong social fraternity and sorority culture, I was amazed at what was reported.

I recommend your listening to this segment on-line, in spite of its graphic reportage of students so inebriated they are publicly urinating on the lawns of neighbors; and featuring such priceless anecdotes as a female student reporting she and her friends “weren’t slutty” until they came to college; and another female student who is joined by her parents for her twenty-first birthday drinking celebration, all gathered to get drunk.

I was reminded of a famous Pennsylvania resident, former US President Dwight Eisenhower, who warned prophetically in the 1950’s of what he described as a threat to our nation’s future from the “military industrial complex.” And, of course, many commentators have since added that what we developed was also the “military-industrial-university complex.” And now what I proclaim that we obviously have in such research university settings is an “alumni-big time sports-alcohol industry-college student dependent small business-higher education administration complex! And this “complex” is in collusion to enable these late adolescent adult world avoidance behaviors (along with a lot of adult alums who come to join and further enable them).

NPR, thankfully, has a huge listening audience. And I couldn’t help but hope that many of them were sophisticated enough to know that what was described as “student life” in Penn State’s “Happy Valley” is not what characterizes “student life” on the majority of US colleges and universities. The majority of students in our country are not drinking to excess, partying Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. The majority can’t afford to do so for one thing, do not attend Division I institutions, are not members of Greek letter social organizations, do not live on college campuses, and have to work so many long hours at part and full-time jobs in addition to their college class time and work, that they couldn’t possibly experience college as Ira Glass saw it at a Penn State football weekend. That’s the big picture.

And we need to remind our fellow citizens of what the reality is, and ourselves too. Happy Valley is not the norm.

-John N. Gardner

Monday, January 4, 2010

An Unplanned Opportunity for Community

T’was the week before Christmas 2009 and all over my mountain top in western North Carolina snow and then freezing rain and sleet and then more snow fell. It was a hard, frozen snow. The most we had had since The East Coast Blizzard of 1993. And our roads were not plowed for four days (due to State budget cut backs on personnel and equipment). I live with my wife, Betsy Barefoot, literally on the top of a mountain from which it is four miles down steep winding roads to civilization.

So we were presented with four days of opportunity for unprecedented community with our neighbors. Betsy suggested asking one neighbor couple over for dinner and they came. We had been wanting to do this for months and work and life were always interfering. And we got to know and discover them so much better in just one long relaxing evening.

And we went to a neighborhood party, given by a same sex couple, the first in our immediate community. We learned so much about their talents, a neat business they were starting, their challenges and progress in remodeling their home. And we were reminded of how many legal privileges Betsy and I enjoy but not all of our neighbors are accorded such equal treatment under the law.

And I discovered a neighbor who has lung cancer and desperately needed to get down off the mountain top for a radiation treatment. I was the only person he and his wife knew that not only had a four-wheel drive vehicle, but one with four “studded” snow tires. So I totally changed the plan I had established for my day to take this couple down off the mountain top, and succeeded in doing so.

The differences in my and my wife’s daily rhythm took a positive cumulative effect and almost like a child who got to miss school, I became thankful for this unplanned opportunity for community.

It also made me think of how so many characteristics now of the contemporary college and university work against community; prevent us from having a meal with “neighbors” that we intend to get to know better but never really do; prevent us from experiencing people who are different from us, right on our own campus; and prevent us from reaching out and discovering someone who really could use some assistance from us if only we would notice the need and offer to respond.

This sets me to thinking about what kinds of external factors can and should interrupt our daily rhythms to provide opportunities for unplanned community. And why we couldn’t just be more intentional about trying to create more opportunities for community, under our control, and not forced upon us by circumstances beyond our control.

Wouldn’t you make your campus just a little bit better this year than you will find it on January 4, 2010, if you intentionally create more opportunities for community within your sphere of influence, no matter what size that may be?

-John N. Gardner