Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Own Your Power

John N. Gardner

Last week I had the privilege, and the pleasure, of participating in the Fourth Annual Arkansas Student Success Symposium, in Conway AR. This meeting is an outgrowth of something I champion wherever I get the opportunity: getting two and four-year campuses together for partnership activities. In this case, three women from two institutions, Amy Baldwin and Ann Fellinger from Pulaski Technical College, and Sally Roden of the University of Central Arkansas, got together nearly five years ago to plan the first annual convening of representatives of two and four-year colleges in Arkansas. What has become now an annual series, co sponsored by the Arkansas Association of Two-Year Colleges and the Arkansas Department of Higher Education, has succeeded in bringing together like minded higher educators from both post secondary sectors, as they have never come together before.

I have attended each year, as this series emerged from Foundations of Excellence work engaged in by the two founding institutions—and I am the ostensible leader of the non-profit organization that provides “Foundations of Excellence”, a self-study and planning process to create an action plan to improve first-year student success and retention. This year I did several sessions at this conference. A week later, one of the participants in one of my sessions wrote me: “ I left the conference encouraged to do what I can that doesn’t require the approval of others”!

I believe this attendee had what I so wanted all my students to experience in any of my classes: an epiphany. In fact, I consciously taught for epiphany, for my students and myself. What she wrote me really grabbed my attention.

I think what she was saying that we higher educators can’t help but absorb our larger culture and in particular, the helplessness, the anxiety, the vulnerability, the disposable nature, that so many Americans feel. They feel so powerless, so intimidated, by their employers who send them constant messages that they can easily be replaced, that they dare not speak up about the injustices they see going on around them.

In contrast, we higher educators have the privilege to work in an environment that cherishes a much higher degree of personal tolerance, personal choice, and, of course, most sacred of all, academic freedom. Yet even in the culture of the academy, due in part to significant lay offs and outsourcing, emulating the corporate model, more and more of my colleagues feel vulnerable and they are silenced. In spite of this, many still have extraordinary degrees of personal freedom.

Freedom to do largely as we please, as long as we responsibly meet our professional obligations; freedom to think, study, write and speak as we please. Freedom to question sacred cows, myths, ignorance and hypocrisy where we see it. Freedom to challenge constituted authority, as long as we do this respectfully and within the prerogatives granted to us by the academic culture, especially for those of us so fortunate to hold faculty rank with tenure.

Sadly, I think the majority of us are becoming silenced. We too have become fearful of retribution. I believe however that many of us still retain extraordinary, by the standards of the corporate culture, great degrees of personal freedom. There are, as my conference session participant wrote, all kinds of things we can do without seeking permission, and sometimes without seeking forgiveness. We still have, again by the standards of the external culture, extraordinary degrees of personal freedom.

So, if we don’t speak up, take a stand, challenge injustice, make impassioned calls for social justice, who in our country can afford to do this? More than ever, I believe we have a moral obligation to own our power. It is a privilege. We must use it responsibly. We cannot play our parts in preserving the vitality of our democracy unless we demonstrate to our students how to respectfully, thoughtfully challenge orthodoxy and many of the just plain stupid ideas that are rapidly becoming public policy today.

I hope you will think about all the things you can do that might have socially redeeming value and for which you do not have to seek permission. As we used to say in the 60’s: own your power.

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