Thursday, July 22, 2010

How Could We Be Preparing College Students Who Want to Work in the Academy but not for the Academy?

I am going to focus on perhaps a somewhat limited example of what I know is a much larger question, the one I ask above.

This is prompted by a visit I had the other day from a former student who has earned masters and doctoral degrees in the related fields of college student personnel and higher education. Most typically, people with these kinds of credentials end up working in higher education administration, either in student affairs or academic affairs. And many of them rise to very senior positions of leadership.

While I was at the University of South Carolina, later in my career, I was invited to teach one course a year to such graduate students; thus I learned more than I would otherwise about their background preparation levels, curricular options etc.

More specifically, I learned that these students had like being college students themselves. And they liked the idea of “helping students.” And they liked college so much that they never really wanted to leave all the stimulation that that environment affords. And so they found a way of staying.

But I am finding that more and more of my former such students, who did enter the academy’s work force, and now leaving it and going to work for corporations who sell products and services to college and university campuses.

Of course higher education is a huge sector in the US economy and there are many for-profit companies now whose entire, or substantial business product lines are designed for the higher education market. And somebody has to sell these products and services, and provide the training and support they need.

The Chronicle recently carried a feature story about all the companies that are now providing services that colleges used to provide, but have now outsourced: such as tutoring, counseling, housing, textbook stores, etc.

There are at the very least here three compelling questions: 1) why are such professionals leaving the academy and entering the free enterprise system to seek their fortune? 2) should we be providing graduate level education and training to enable this transition more intentionally? 3) and if so, what would be teach such students.

I would venture a guess that there is not a single one of the more than 100 plus higher education/college student personnel degrees in the country that are doing anything specific to prepare their graduates for careers selling to the academy and supporting it through products and services.

Why are these professionals moving outside the academy? I would venture these reasons:

1. The corporatization of the American college and University culture has been so pervasive and profound, that the formerly attractive differences between the college and corporate cultures have been sufficiently reduced so that the advantage is no longer in favor of the academy. Colleges have truly become more businesslike and hence the previous view that the more humane and idealistic nature of the college life style somehow justified lower levels of compensation, no longer operate as a justification.

2. Corporate employers now too can offer flexible work hours; and even more opportunities for home based work and telecommuting. This is especially ideal for people who want a career and child raising simultaneously.

3. College administrators and student affairs officers live over the store. There are always demands that they be on campus at nights and on weekends. However, these corporate jobs largely lack these time demands.

4. For many reasons colleges lack the means to incentivize employees through merit pay and other fiscal incentives. That’s not a problem for corporations.

5. The assumption that employment in the higher ed sector was more secure has gone. The Great Recession has taken care of that. Higher ed employees are now being laid off, furloughed, terminated in downsizing, just as happened to their corporate counterparts. There’s one more former advantage of higher ed employment gone.

6. Same is true with the “benefits” side of the equation. There are now fewer and fewer academic jobs that are tenure eligible. The corporate life never afforded tenure. And when it comes to defined benefit plans, those are being scaled back too and hence there is no real practical difference between being a higher ed employee building a 430b account toward retirement versus a corporate employee building one’s 401K.

7. Institutional loyalty to the campus is declining; no difference now from the company where there has been much less loyalty for several decades.

8. And corporate jobs may pay significantly more.

I don’t see these trends diminishing, rather only be exacerbated. So, this tells me that more and more of our graduates who had aspired to non teaching jobs in the academy, will increasingly not be making a career with us at all. As the academy outsources more and more previously core functions, the job market actually looks better to me outside the academy, but servicing the academy.

So what is our responsibility to prepare our students for such important choices and to be successful in work outside the academy if they chose to pursue that? I think that more and more will.

-John N. Gardner

Monday, July 19, 2010

What Do You Want to Be Remembered For?

This past Saturday night my wife, Betsy Barefoot, and I had a lovely experience: a former graduate student of ours drove about 125 miles one way to bring her husband and nine year old daughter to have dinner and a good visit with us. Betsy and I had taught this former student about 18-19 years ago and since then she has completed a doctorate and is having a fine career serving higher education. She was/is truly one of my very best all-time career students.

Certainly one of the greatest compliments any professor, or any other type of higher educator, can receive is to have a former student make an effort to come back for a visit.

But a question that occurs to me to reflect on is what could/should educators be doing with students NOW that might want to move those students to want to make such an effort in the future?

I can certainly attest to the fact that having such visits, or even correspondence, updates, check-ins, from former students has been one of the most gratifying outcomes of my career choice.

Like the majority of faculty, but unlike many administrators, I spent my entire higher ed institutional career in one institution—and I am very glad I did. And that was in a relatively small state (South Carolina) where it seemed that most of my former students never left. They just love the place, in spite of its appallingly bad political leadership. And so I found over my three plus decades in South Carolina that I was constantly running into my former students. And when I did, frequently they gave me feedback. But it was rarely about the subject matter that I taught them. It might have been about something they remembered that happened in class. Or something I made them do, like a memorable thought provoking assignment, or making them read something they never would have read otherwise (e.g. like The New York Times). But more often than not, the feedback was about me, and something I had done for or with them. And it wasn’t always much: the fact that I had “talked” with them; shown an interest in them; always remembered their name; pushed them; went on a field trip with them; helped them get a job. But it all can reduced to what I call: “the gift of self.”

After all, college isn’t really so much about learning “facts” as it is about learning how to learn, being inspired by adult professionals, being exposed to and encouraged by mentors, making that transition into the kind of adulthood that is more likely to come about for college graduates.

This has led me to conclude that you might as well be intentional about this: what is it about you that you want to give your students? For what would you want to be remembered 15-20-30-40 years later? Professors are very influential people during a period of very formative development for other individuals. We are going to be remembered. So we might as well be remembered for what we might want to be remembered for. It’s all about being intentional in our behaviors and practices—but still natural and spontaneous.

So what do you want to be remembered for? What will you be remembered for?

-John N. Gardner