Friday, November 5, 2010

Here’s to the Enduring Influence of the Faculty!

I find myself writing a series of posts inspired by my brief participation in my 45th college reunion. This one is about another type of influence faculty have on students, a very tangible and lasting one.

My alma mater is a small, private, liberal arts college. In the past decade four new buildings have been built which have transformed this little campus and insured its prosperity and educational effectiveness for many more years to come. I had the occasion to see these new buildings this past weekend and I took them in with a sense of wonderment, awe, pride, respect, and great appreciation to those who made them possible. And all these buildings were built due to the generosity of alumni who have cherished memories of their times at alma mater, and especially of their faculty who were the ultimate inspiration of these gifts.

I find myself writing a series of posts inspired by my brief participation in my 45th college reunion. This one is about another type of influence faculty have on students, a very tangible and lasting one.

My alma mater is a small, private, liberal arts college. In the past decade four new buildings have been built which have transformed this little campus and insured its prosperity and educational effectiveness for many more years to come. I had the occasion to see these new buildings this past weekend and I took them in with a sense of wonderment, awe, pride, respect, and great appreciation to those who made them possible. And all these buildings were built due to the generosity of alumni who have cherished memories of their times at alma mater, and especially of their faculty who were the ultimate inspiration of these gifts.

I have often reminded administrators that by and large students don’t come back to see them at Homecoming. It’s the faculty they return to see—and their fellow students of course.

I know we don’t think of the faculty as the lead development officers, as the people who bring in the bucks. But at my alma mater they certainly have been. In the past decade, in large part due to the enormous generosity generated by five faculty, four magnificent new buildings have come on line as the result of four donors and their abiding love for certain facult: a new library, new science building, new taj mahal rec center, and a planetarium. One of these buildings is even named for the two faculty that inspired the donor.

Just what is it that the faculty do for students who when they become really wealthy would want to give back in such a manner?

• The faculty were always there for these former students. They were in their offices available, willing, and interested to talk. And they did talk with these students.
• They had these students into their homes for meals and conversation and fellowship with their families.
• They encouraged, praised, pushed, prodded, affirmed, consoled, cheered, supported, guided, supported these former students.
• They liberated these students intellectually.
• They inspired these students to make a difference in the lives of others.
• They inspired these students to hang in there, stick it out.
• They never doubted these students.
• They were always there when needed.
• They maintained interest in these students for a lifetime.
• They showed these students how to return the gift.

Of course the modern college hires a cohort of professional development officers. But the ones that really bring in the bucks are the faculty. For this reason alone, how can colleges in good sense take any actions that actually offer disincentives to faculty to engage in more faculty-student contact? All this emphasis on pursuit of more research dollars now, which often takes time away from students now, is just one more example of the corporatization of the academy. It is an example of short range money making strategies, for reporting to the next meeting of the board. I can’t but wonder if this doesn’t interfere though with the long range funding interests of the institution, those gifts that will surely roll in years later, if only we have intentionally developed a campus culture where the faculty are allowed to do what they do best under ideal circumstances: serve as the real development officers.

-John N. Gardner

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

For Campuses Who Can’t Go Greek, How Can They Do Greek?

Approximately a year ago, I posted a blog where I reflected on fall being the traditional time in the traditional American college for “homecoming,” I recognized that this cultural ritual of students returning to alma mater to have reunions with former faculty and fellow students, really is an anachronism in the new American colleges which serve large numbers of “swirling”, transfer, non-traditional students. I asked what would it take to bring today’s students back for such reunions and develop similar powerful affinities with their former colleges? So I am not going to ask that now, although I am reflecting on that again.

This is prompted by my participation recently in my 45th class reunion, for the Class of 1965 at Marietta College. And I was reminded again of what powerful loyalties such colleges and their rituals and ceremonies evoke. I certainly am influenced by this culture. This time I took special notice of the lasting influence on former students of their “Greek” experience.

I don’t think I have missed a five year reunion marker since I graduated in 1965. I am really hooked on these things. And I have known for decades both intellectually and personally about the power of the so-called “greek” social groups on American college campuses. Even though their student membership numbers have been in free fall for the past several decades, their remaining numbers continue to exercise an influence on campus culture far greater than their mere numbers would suggest. Why are their raw numbers declining? Primarily cost. But in addition, parents of traditional aged college students, and many students themselves, are concerned about the image of such groups and attendant liability risks. And many students conclude they don’t need such groups to have a good social life. And now there are many other opportunities on campus for students to socialize with fellow students with whom they would constitute a homogenous group in terms of special interests.

At my most recent reunion I was reminded again of these impacts/outcomes for fraternity/sorority membership:

1. Identity formation---once a “(fill in the blank with greek letters), always one.
2. Powerful lifelong friendships
3. Powerful business ties
4. Enduring impact of behaviors, skills, and values learned in the organizational culture
5. Higher levels of loyalty and continuing affinity with alma mater as alumni
6. Higher giving levels by alumni
7. They learned in such groups how to do what they do now for a living: running America’s for-profit businesses.

I realize I may be coming across as being very detached and analytical about this. So let me disclose that I did not join a greek group in college. But I did in my later career at the University of South Carolina where I served as faculty advisor to the chapter of Delta Upsilon for 16 years. During that time I allowed them to “initiate” me so I became a “brother”.

Even though I am concerned about the downsides of membership in such groups (e.g. increased probability of alcohol abuse) I am very interested in generating some of the outcomes for greek students for all students, such as increased retention/graduation rates, increased alumni giving etc. But, the reality is that the replication of such groups in many of America’s contemporary is just not realistic. Students in commuter colleges cannot afford such groups, either their membership fees or the time commitments—and these are only the two most compelling reasons. In other words, these colleges can’t possibly “go greek”.

But could they “do greek”? What could possibly be some group affiliation experiences that we could create in commuter colleges that serve many non-traditional students? Or should we not even try? Is this a futile exercise that reveals just one more way the rich get richer in America---by going to colleges which offer such opportunities for socialization into the American college and corporate culture?

We know that joining co-curricular groups has been a powerful predictor of retention and graduation in traditional colleges for both white and African American greek students. Students can join groups in non traditional colleges. We know of the power of just joining study groups; of participating in “learning communities”; and engaging in service learning/community service in commuter colleges. But the fact that we can’t realistically offer the greek group experience is one more way we perpetuate a culture of less advantage in non traditional colleges.

I wish I had any answer, let alone an easy answer to this question: how can commuter colleges offer powerful group experiences for their students? Generate high levels of friendship, bonding, affinity? I have visited many commuter colleges where I do see and interact with students in powerful group experiences. But there just hasn’t been the effort to intentionally create such group opportunities on a deliberate effort of this scale. This is regrettable. We must do better.

-John Gardner

Monday, November 1, 2010

I Have Seen the Future and it is Here # 2

Recently, I wrote about a late September visit I made to McAllen, Texas and South Texas College; and shared my observations that the demographics I saw there, with the attendant inspiring energy and hopefulness of the new immigrants I observed, and how they were transforming higher education in the region. For this post, I report on a more recent opportunity to see another glimpse of the future, which is also already here.

This academic year, I have the privilege of advising three constituent colleges of the City University of New York, all in the same borough of the city, the Bronx: Bronx Community College, Hostos Community College, and Lehman College. The latter college is what in CUNY speak is known as the “senior college” and receives transfer students from the other two borough feeder colleges. Together we are working to improve both the success of “native” students and transfer students. The two community colleges are engaged in our Foundations of Excellence self study and planning process to improve the performance of their new students. But Lehman is engaged in our Foundations of Excellence “Transfer Focus” to improve the success of transfer students coming to Lehman from Bronx and Hostos Community Colleges. Together, these three colleges and our Institute have a great opportunity to improve the public good in this dynamic borough of the city of New York.

The future I saw, now the present reality at Lehman, defies the stereotypical, historical picture of what our colleges do. The lay public view of American higher education, unfortunately, is still that the academy is predominantly for students who come to college, stay four years, live on campus, get a degree and move on. My readers know this doesn’t square with reality. Exhibit A: Lehman is the new transfer institution. It’s now archetypal student is the transfer student. Last fall it admitted approximately 850 “new” students and approximately 1850 transfer students. To say that it is dependent on transfer students is an understatement.

Lehman, of course, is not unique in this regard. But it is quite unique in its current commitment to develop a coherent plan to improve the performance of its new majority: transfer students.

It has been my experience in many such institutions, where the transfer students now outnumber native students, that the dominant culture of such institutions (Lehman excepted) is still one organized for native students and where the assumption is they still predominate, even though they don’t in numbers, but do in influence. This is an example of colleges acting like the colleges they used to be, not the colleges they have actually become. Surely we can do better.

Admittedly, this is a complex problem (understatement). We cannot improve US graduation rates unless we improve degree attainment by transfer students. But colleges don’t receive public recognition for such a commitment because retention and graduation rates of transfer students don’t “count” in the Federal government’s tracking system for public reporting. The end results of this is that colleges court transfer students for their body count and tuition, fee, and funding formula dollars, admit them, but then largely neglect them and leave them to sink or swim in a college culture designed for native students. The end result is an enormous set of challenges for students seeking transfer, particularly in obtaining equitable and consistent treatment for transfer of credits. Unfortunately, in most states, rather than having transfer being systematized so that it is predictable and equitable, instead it is unpredictable, ad hoc, inconsistent, and often capricious and arbitrary, leaving enormous autonomy and power to individual faculty at “receiving” colleges to determine award of transfer students on an individual case by case basis. The potential for abuse based on prejudice in this model is enormous.

And what if we don’t get a handle on this situation, what are the predictable outcomes?
1. Graduation rates cannot improve
2. The US will never recover its primacy in world college completion rates
3. Litigation will increase; class action suits by students are inevitable
4. Legislative intrusion is also inevitable
5. We will like less the legislatively imposed fixes than the ones we could have worked out ourselves.
6. Proprietary colleges will continue to use the transfer problems as a marketing bonanza, recruit these students that the four-year public colleges erect barriers to, and then turn around and charge these transfers much higher fees, using up more of our federal aid dollars, and greatly increasing the debt levels of these less fortunate students. When proprietary colleges market that they are more transfer friendly, they do so accurately and ethically.
7. Ironically, private not-for-profit colleges, the smart ones, the ones not inhibited by prejudice towards transfers, will continue to help take up the slack.

Regarding points 1-6 above, surely we can—and must do better.


-John N. Gardner