Friday, June 25, 2010

The New American Comprehensive College

I got started in writing a blog because one of my younger colleagues in our Institute made me do it. She is much more “hip” than I am and I try to almost always take her advice about how I can more effectively communicate in the media of today.

At the same time as she presented her basic argument that I needed to do a blog, she tried her best to explain to me that blogs by their very nature, needed to be relatively short. I am afraid, I have not learned this lesson well enough.

So in this blog I am merely going to raise a topic and suggest that if you want a more complete rendering of my ideas on this, you should write me and I will send you a brief two page document that lays them out.

This blog was inspired by fact that on June 17 I spent an entire day with a large urban community college district. And I told them, as I am telling every “community college” audience I get in front of these days-- that I have stopped referring to them as “community colleges.” You know, people get attached to their names. And it can be pretty threatening to tell people they ought to drop their name to which they have become so attached now since the end of World War II.

And what would I suggest we call “community colleges?” Quite simple: “The New American Comprehensive College”

And if you would like my brief exposition on this heresy, drop me a note at and I will send you my thoughts on this.

Very succinctly: Community colleges is what they were. New American comprehensive colleges is what they are, have become. There is no more comprehensive institutional type, now that approximately 100 US “community colleges” have been authorized to award four-year degrees.

What’s going on:
1. A perfect storm has converged: the economy tanked and we elected an Ivy League President who is enamored with community colleges.
2. These colleges have become the first choice of millions.
3. The median age of their students is plummeting. This is forcing them to become more like other “colleges.”
4. The social safety net has been gutted over the past twenty years. These colleges now offer many social welfare functions: health care, child care, adult literacy training, job retraining, adult counseling, and redemption from the failings of the US public school system.
5. The baccalaureate institutions cannot possibly meet the demand for all the public school teachers and nurses we need, and other occupational types too. And because four-year institutions haven’t been able to get their costs under control, and/or don’t really want to expand their business of offering majors for low paying graduates who don’t give back big bucks, we have no choice but to expand the “two-year sector.”
6. We cannot possibly increase transfer rates as long as we require a change of institutional cultures for students to experience when they literally “move” from one institution to another. So we have to make it possible for them to “finish” without ever “leaving.”

And this is only a partial list of descriptors of what is going on. Many of these changes are very threatening to my colleagues in the baccalaureate sector but I am excited by them. And there is no putting this genie back in the bottle. It’s time we stopped calling these 1400+ colleges “community colleges.” They are not fixed any longer just to local communities and they have truly become “comprehensive.” It’s all in a name. Names do matter.

-John N. Gardner

Thursday, June 24, 2010

I Am What I Studied

One of the decanal rituals of many colleges and universities is “general education reform”—“core curriculum revision”—“reinventing the core”, etc. Often these pronouncements are occasions for me for mild cynicism. I say to myself: “Yeah, sure, all they have done is to change the boxes for what students have to check off to satisfy the degree requirements.” Or, simply, this is simply a curricular affirmation of the power block at work in the Faculty Senate which has once again redivided the FTE pie.

This reflection is prompted by the fact that I visited a college recently that had just completed a massive curricular overhaul. It struck me as particularly courageous because they are a large urban community, multi-campus, college and they may be biting off more than they can chew. I admonished them with my usual mantra that it often matters more what colleges do to address HOW the curriculum is delivered than WHAT is delivered.

Yet in preparing for this campus visit, it was an occasion for me to once again reflect on the realization that I am what I studied. What students are asked to learn really does matter, that is if they can engage that curriculum using deep learning pedagogies and have it really influence their life values, insights, and choices. I urge my readers to ask themselves: are you what you studied?

To illustrate, I will share some of the ways I am what I studied:

1. I went to a small liberal arts college that was writing intensive. I had to write in every course I took. So I am a writing intensive person and citizen. For me, writing is a primary mode of thinking and communication.

2. I had to take a public speaking course in my first term of college. It was the only common required course in all majors and which no student could exempt. Much of what I do now to earn a living connects to public speaking. I can still quote explicitly the lessons I learned from that first and only required course I took in public speaking.

3. My college did NOT require me to choose a major. And so I didn’t. Instead I received an “interdisciplinary” studies “concentration” bachelors degree. And I am a much less narrow (I think) person today because of this. I am thankful to dear alma mater for never forcing me to choose a major.

4. My college did NOT make me take any mathematics. That was a big mistake. I am still math challenged, essentially, mathematically illiterate. I would be a much better thinker today had I taken math -- for math is really about teaching thinking. Today, I need external assistance to explain to me various documents, reports, that come my way because I am not competent to address the mathematical and statistical presentations. That is a real weakness.

5. My college did not mandate any introductory coursework for me in the fine arts. Consequently, I developed no appreciation for the arts until mid life, in my middle forties, I met my current wife, Betsy Barefoot, who had a passion for the arts and gave that gift to me. How different my young adulthood would have been had I discovered dance, opera, classical music, live theater. But thank goodness I was opened up later rather than sooner.

6. My college courses constantly forced me to look at the big picture abstractions, derived from masses of more minute information. Now I do that all the time.

7. I am persuaded that my college education made me the big picture thinker I am today. It taught me many contextual ways to understand what I needed to understand to read the paper, listen intelligently to politicians, you name it.

8. My college gave me my first and most formative relatively risk free laboratory to put into practice applications of what I was learning in the curriculum, to what I now do for a living: facilitate organizational change. This happened by my involvement in student government, co-curricular activities where I got to practice: speaking, writing, persuading, dreaming, organizing, facilitating, leading, pursuing a vision for a better community, and a quest for social justice.

I am what I studied. How about you? If you agree that you are too, how can/should you communicate this to your students to provide a catalyst for their own thinking about how they are becoming what they study? What students are asked to study really does matter.

-John N Gardner

Monday, June 21, 2010

Never Enough Opportunities to Teach Leadership

Very early in my career, thanks to a visionary president at the University of South Carolina, I had the opportunity to help design a course, University 101, for which one of the goals was to teach students how to “survive” the University. And I realized in this design process that I had learned a tremendous amount from my US Air Force experience about how to teach someone to “survive” a stressful, important, new, challenging experience. Beyond that, I came to realize you could teach human beings how to do just about anything if you were intentional about it. But you had to believe that it could be taught, and that people would want to learn it and be able to do so. And so we found that we could teach students to not only “survive” but to flourish in this new, to them, university environment and that students truly wanted to learn this.

It was some years later that I realized that the most important purpose of America’s colleges and universities was to produce our country’s and communities’ leaders. And I discovered a field called “Leadership Studies” which is now a widely recognized academic discipline offering undergraduate cognates, minors, majors towards bachelors degrees and graduate degrees too. In fact, this is one discipline that my alma mater, Marietta College, in Marietta, Ohio truly excels in offering as one of its niche elements. And, just as I did early in my career, I have learned both that leadership can be taught, and that students want to learn to understand and to practice it. I was reminded of that this week.

Specifically, I was invited to provide two sessions for a local Rotary Club Leadership Camp held in Brevard, North Carolina this week. I had the privilege and fun of talking with about 60 campers who were rising eleventh and twelfth grade high school students drawn from the western North Carolina mountains region where I have the good fortune to live.

In these two sessions I was reminded that:
1. Female students will disproportionately volunteer for such educational experiences as opposed to male students.
2. Female students congregated near the “front” of the class, males disproportionately to the “rear”.
3. Female students engaged in a higher level of voluntary verbal participation.
4. The adult Rotarians present as “counselors”, local Rotary leaders, were disproportionately male. But that’s because they were all of an age and generation when men overpopulated US colleges and universities.
5. Today’s students really are interested in learning about leadership.
6. They want to become leaders and they “get it” that college is a major proving ground for leaders.
7. And at this point in their secondary school education they really don’t know much about what leadership is or how to intentionally learn how to practice it.

I was reminded that it would be a good thing if all of us higher educators spoke and directed ourselves more often to this overarching societal objective. This really is “relevant” and “relevance” enhances student engagement which leads to so many other positive student outcomes. Really our work does or should all come down to producing more leaders for our society. We all have a stake in this. We all have a contribution to make. I am really glad I spent about 2.5 hours with these campers. There has to be a Rotary Club near you doing something like this. Do check it out. We shouldn’t leave this entirely to the Rotarians, although I greatly admire their initiative.

-John N. Gardner