Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Looking at the Campus Through the Lens of the Haves vs. the Have Nots

John N. Gardner

The combination of my blogging, personal process of introspection, and recent international travel, has made me realize at a higher level of deliberateness, that I am an academic tourist. No matter what I do, or where I am, I am an academic. So in my role as an itinerant blogger tourist, I am constantly thinking about what I can report on—report especially to my own state of intellectual awareness, and then perhaps to my readers.

So I have realized that one of the most common ways I see the world is through the prism of the haves vs the have nots. I have been in four countries since January 20, and as of February 13 when I write this posting: South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and, of course, my own beloved country, which I once served in the Armed Forces, and which I now serve as a higher educator.

In South Africa, it was very easy to observe the haves vs the have nots. The latter were everywhere. Until the early 1990’s this country had a minority white government running a country that is 80% “African”, and much of it very, very poor. I saw the differences of the haves vs the have nots played out on a major university campus: those who were hungry; those who were not. Those who had access to technology prior to coming to university; those who had not. Those who had enough clothing for university life and those who did not. Those who were from rural schools which probably didn’t have a library (how do you prepare students to function in a global society without a library?) Yes, there were enormous differences. But at least, it was public policy numero uno of the government to pursue social justice, to reduce these vast disparities, and to hold all government agencies, like public universities, accountable for how they performed vis a vis this objective. And then I returned to the United States.

In the US we also have vast differences between the haves vs the have nots. One out of five of our children live in poverty. The middle class is shrinking. We are deliberately reducing the social safety net. The performance of our higher education system, once the world’s top performer now lags significantly behind in access, retention, and graduation rates. We are deliberately striving to weaken or even eliminate labor unions, one of the few societal structures trying to expand the middle class. We recently attempted to expand access to health care but now are witnessing a huge effort to roll this back. We have a “Supreme Court” that recently expanded civil and legal rights to corporations to equate them with individual citizen rights. This has led to vast increases in corporation expenditures to, literally, buy elections. Governmental policies, particularly in taxation, but also in education, environmental regulation, health care, banking and securities regulation, overwhelming favors the rich and the powerful. The country’s dominant value system now seems to reflect the beliefs of the minority party and the majority party seems to be racing the minority party to see who can cut the have nots the most. One of our state’s governors (Texas) has even proposed that the entire state support for the federal Medicaid program be cut, eliminating three million citizens from health insurance (the same governor who suggested his state should consider seceding from the Union). I could go on, but won’t.

And then there are Australia and New Zealand. Here the differences between have’s and have nots are much less perceptible. And that’s because they are simply much less. This is due to many factors, both historical and political, such as: tax policies, and a more generous social safety net.

All this turns me, as always, to our campuses. How do the differences there between the haves vs the have nots, play out? I look at this in two basic ways: the student culture and that of the institution’s sub units, policies and practices. Any campus I happen to be on I can see the differences between the haves and the have nots—both in the students, and in the institutional units. In terms of the latter, some units, programs, are more favored than others (some much more!). Some get more resources, some less. Some are more favored in institutional priorities (e.g. the strategic plan), others less.

But it is the students I am particularly interested in. A few examples to illustrate this lens of the haves vs the have nots:

1. What about the disparity between those who live on campus (because they can afford to) and those who do not? Examine their levels of engagement and particularly their differential graduation rates.

2. What about the attention and commitment of resources they receive as a function of academic standing or category? For example: undecided majors vs decided majors. First-year students vs upper class students? Transfer students vs “native” students? “Student” athletes vs non-athletes? “Greek” affiliated students vs non affiliated students? “Merit” aid recipients vs strictly Federal aid recipients? Minority students vs majority students? I could go on but won’t.

So, what would it take to move your campus to one that succeeds in reducing the differences between the haves vs the have nots? I learned in my own outstanding liberal arts education that the questions are sometimes more important than the answers. I urge you to try to more consciously see your own campus through this lens of the haves vs the have nots.

I am urging this because I am profoundly concerned about the future of our democracy which at present is intentionally increasing the separation between, the rights and privileges of, haves vs the have not. And such differences are not good for any democracy. And, if extended to even greater extremes, they may well threaten our democracy. All we have to do is to look at the levels of instability where there exist the greatest such differences: Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Palestine, etc. The college experience is fundamentally about producing informed citizens to enhance and sustain the democracy. Given our current magnitude of differences, I would say we are in trouble. My recent foreign travel really brings this home to me.

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