Wednesday, June 9, 2010

An Annual Glimpse Beyond My Cultural Blinders

This blog finds me attending the annual International Conference on The First-Year Experience. This is part of a meeting series begun by me in 1986 with prior venues in the US including Hawaii, the UK—both England and Scotland, the Republic of Ireland, and Canada. As you might suspect, this series is an outgrowth of the more US focused series of conferences on The First-Year Experience which I began in 1982. This year’s meeting is on the island of Maui.
No doubt about it, Hawaii is one of those places that lives up to its billing. And, while this may be straining the limits of gullibility of some of my readers, this really is an ideal location for an academic meeting. If you can’t relax here, and set aside the stresses and distractions of your current real world somewhere else, you can’t do it anywhere. I am amazed that even in this beautiful setting, the delegates are truly in session all day long.

This year was a smaller meeting, at least by the standards of prior Hawaiian conferences in this series, some 345 attendees, down from about 650 three years ago. I am sure that the economy is the only explanation.

What used to be solely an American preoccupation has truly become an international higher education focus. As many societies have expanded access and broadened participation, their challenge has been to maintain graduation rates without lowering standards while simultaneously expanding access. The language of “retention” has become universal, much as I have argued against the use of this business metric for maintaining “customers” as an educational rationale. Back in the Cold War political scientists wrote about the so called “convergence factor” to describe the gradually diminution of previously great differences between the former Soviet Union and its arch enemy, the United States. Over time, they became more like us, and we more like them. I see exactly the same thing in this international FYE movement.

Well, if you weren’t here this year, it is, obviously too late. But put next year’s meeting on your calendar: June 20-23, 2011 in Manchester, England. This meeting will be piggybacked on a preceding meeting of European nations who have been gathering for five years or so to discuss their versions of “the first-year experience.” What a great opportunity for cross cultural stimulation this will be. Of all the FYE conferences I have attended, this international gathering is clearly my favorite. There is no convening that gets me to see more clearly the cultural components of the US first-year experience—and that is because seeing the first year components of other cultures pushes and expands my understanding of what others and we are trying to do. There is just nothing like this. I hope you will join me next year. And for any readers who have been to any of our UK conferences in the past, for the first time this meeting will not be using UK standard university residence halls. Instead, we will succumb to the use of a commercial hotel, the Renaissance, in Manchester. When we used to go to Britain, we attempted to adopt the indigenous culture for academic meetings. Now we ask the indigenous people to adapt the US way of convening fellow educators: in hotels, not on campuses. This is a benign example of the corporatization of our meeting culture. But there are far worse fates and I am just thrilled that this all is still thriving in spite of the Great Recession---and perhaps in part because of it!

- John N. Gardner

Monday, June 7, 2010

What Has Been the Impact of the Great Recession on the First-Year Improvement Initiative?

I wish I knew. Or maybe I don’t. I have been accumulating all sorts of horror story anecdotes. But I don’t have any hard data. Even raising this question for the purposes of posting this blog has served a useful purpose for me: I shall resolve to try to offer a better answer by having us collect some empirical data on this.

This spring, the non-profit organization which I lead, conducted an internal study of what had been the results of a process we have now offered to 167 colleges and universities: a planning self-study assessment process known as Foundations of Excellence® in the First College Year. What we particularly wanted to know was what has resulted from the “action plan” that we have helped each of these campuses develop to improve their students’ beginning college experience. And we found for those campuses that did not experience a high level of success in implementation, two major contributing variables: 1) change in senior leadership; and 2) financial problems.

Well, change in senior leadership cannot be attributed primarily to the Great Recession although all the stress from this economic catastrophe may have been the last straw leading some senior leaders to give up administration, return to teaching, and their families, and/or retire. But the other factor, financial problems, certainly can be attributed to the recession.

To be more balanced though, I have an equal or greater number of anecdotes that this year many campuses have further strengthened their efforts to support new students, in part, because of the recession. The students need more help than ever and so do the institutions to maintain their enrollment. So, my jury, the jury, is out.

I write these reflections as I fly across the Pacific to the annual International Conference on The First-Year Experience, an event I first organized in 1984. I plan to check out there what has been the impact of the world-wide recession on first-year improvement efforts. One immediate impact: this conference has only one third the number of participants it enjoyed three years ago when last this meeting was held in Hawaii.

-John N. Gardner