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