Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Thirty Years and Going Strong

I write this as I fly to my first ever February vacation, with my wife, Betsy Barefoot, destination: Australia and New Zealand. Betsy and I have just attended the 30th annual Conference on The First-Year Experience organized by the University of South Carolina. This event drew approximately 1600 higher educators from around the globe. This meeting is the latest in a series which I founded, with my colleagues at USC, in 1982.

I will focus in the brief posting on some general observations and conclusions drawn by me:

1. Approximately half the attendees were what we call “first-timers”. I conclude from this that both the series and the movement continue to welcome, attract, and assimilate many new members and practitioners. Naturally, I find this very gratifying and confident about the future of the movement which I have helped found.

2. This is one of the few meetings I attend where there are an abundance of young faculty and administrators and staff, who mix very well with more seasoned and therefore older higher educators. I found this extremely valuable to me this year. It has been a long time since I did not have power. And since I was very low in a collegiate organizational hierarchy. It was useful for me to hear how the younger, more junior colleagues view and feel the brunt of many policy decisions made by us older and supposedly wiser hands. It would appear that they think we do some very stupid things! The kind of candor expressed at this meeting is different from many back home work settings where those less powerful would be willing to engage in the kind of conversation I was party to in this setting. These conversations though are exactly the kind that senior folks need to expose themselves to however that might be possible.

3. I was struck by how empowered these younger educators seemed to feel to take steps to improve student performance, regardless of available resources or their individual positions in the institutional hierarchy. There was a sense of optimism that these educators really could improve student success and I found this very inspirational.

4. The demographics of this meeting, those gathered who have in common their commitment to nurturing new students, were strikingly and overwhelmingly female. Where are the male educators? What are their values? What are their rewards? What are their purposes?

5. Compared to the late 80’s, early 90’s, there are it struck me that there are far fewer really senior educators participating in this conversation, e.g. presidents, chief academic officers. What might explain this? Perhaps it is that they are already aboard. They get it. They know the importance of paying attention to new students and they have delegated the care and feeding of these students to their subordinates. This audience looked very different to me from those I see attending the annual meetings of the regional accreditors, which are over represented by the powerful of the academy. For me, this is further confirmation of my belief that the first-year improvement movement needs to be better connected to the work of the regional accreditors. That is what gets the attention of senior campus leaders. And therefore, that is what gets the resources.

6. There was surprisingly (to me anyway) little talk in the sessions about the impact of “the cuts”. Instead, it was just taken as a given and so what I saw was the result of increased productivity very much in keeping with recent press reports of another quarter just completed of significant rises in the productivity of American workers. I heard many many anecdotal reports of increased teaching, counseling, advising loads, and of filling the gaps led by formerly but no longer existent programs and staff.

7. And finally, this movement has really taken on the dominant values of the society: it is now totally integrated with shameless commerce, for profit companies selling products and services to increase student success (or so it is touted anyway). In like manner, the mantra of the movement is overwhelmingly about “retention”, a business and revenue model. In many of the sessions, it seemed to matter little what students were learning as long as they were staying and being “retained”. That troubles me profoundly. Higher education for what?

8. So, in conclusion, what is the purpose of all this energy to improve the first year. Yes, it is still about the students. About helping, supporting, challenging, changing them. But it is also about the quintessential American obsession of making money. Perhaps the few Canadian educators there from the Province of Ontario say it best. They have their own conceptual version of the American concept of “FTE”, full-time equivalent: “BIU”= “Basic Income Unit”. I left the meeting gratified and inspired, thankful, but wondering if this was the purpose I had been working for over these last four decades……?

-John N. Gardner

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