Friday, February 18, 2011

Silence

John Gardner
President


I did a blog posting not too long ago reflecting on what students might do when they could find what I called “privacy” by which I meant private space, both mental and spatial, which also implied their getting unconnected for a while. This is a blog about something related, but distinct, silence.

This blog is inspired by a boat cruise my wife and I took yesterday on one of the most spectacular waterways of the world, Doubtful Sound (which is really, technically, a fiord) in New Zealand. We had been out on this boat for about two hours when the pilot and guide, came on the PA and announced that he was shutting down the engine and that he wanted us all to be “silent” for few moments, “to just see what you can hear—the sounds of the birds, the water, all things natural”. It wasn’t too long before this got me to thinking…
First of all, I couldn’t remember ever being on a tour of any kind in the States where the guide requested his/her charges to simply be silent (very hard for connected Americans to do) and listen.

Then it reminded me of my son, Jonathan, coming home at about age 16 from the first “Outward Bound” trip I sent him on. For you higher education types “Outward Bound” needs to be distinguished from the highly regarded educational intervention for college bound high school youngsters, “Upward Bound”. Instead, Outward Bound, headquarted in the US in Swannanoa, North Carolina, about 40 miles from where I live in Brevard, North Carolina, is a provider of wilderness hiking/adventure/growth experiences. The first time my son experienced an Outward Bound trip, it was to the Everglades in Florida. And when he returned the first of many things he reported to me was his experience of ---silence.

He told me that step one on the trip was for the teenagers to give up all their electronic gadgets that keep them connected and stimulated. And then each was taken and left at a spot in the wilds to be completely alone for 24 hours and tasked to listen and think, and take notes in a provided notepad for this purpose. He described this as a very powerful experience.

When do we call for “a moment of silence”? Most commonly it is in association with some grave event, some loss—personal or communal, and for many this event is characterized by prayer. Usually these “moments” are just that, a minute or two. The implicit point conveyed here is that this moment of silence isn’t anything we would want to continue for two long. It would interfere with something Americans prize: productivity.

The point of my blog is to suggest you to think about interjecting some silence into your students’ lives. What if you began, and/or ended a meeting, a class period, with a request that students stop doing every else, disconnect, and simply be silent. Would this help them make the transition to the start of your class? If you did this at the end of the class, would it help them pull together and make some decisions about what they had learned, the value of this class period? Would it help them make the transition to the next period of the day in a more thoughtful, intentional manner? I don’t know. But I think so.

Even more broadly, what if you just built in a few “silence breaks” into your day? When I get back from New Zealand, I am going to give that a try.



Wednesday, February 16, 2011

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

John N. Gardner
President

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.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Digesting the Relationship Between the University-Military-Industrial Complex and Contemporary Undergraduate Education in the United States

Drew Koch
Vice President for New Strategy, Development, and Policy Initiatives

A blog is supposed to be short. So concise that it is profound. At least the ones that get read are. So when I told a relatively new colleague at the Gardner Institute (Rob Rodier) that I wanted to write a blog about undergraduate education, corporate and martial influences in academe, and contemporary culture and democracy in the United States – a topic on which I had completed a 335-page dissertation in 2008 – he had two simple words for me – digest it.

Apparently my prolix tendencies are patently obvious to even the newest of my work mates . . .

After considering that guidance, I came to the conclusion that few people wanted to watch me ingest those 335 pages and use the alimentary canal to absorb and assimilate them into my body. Well, maybe one or two folks did – but those were the 2 friends whose guidance generally got me into trouble.


As my eight-year old son explained to his teacher when asked about his parents’ education levels, his dad is a doctor, but not the kind of doctor that helps people. So, sorry Rob, I must leave that digestion stuff to board certified physicians. Instead, I have decided to write a blog that offers adapted elements from my dissertation in bite-sized nuggets. And those nuggets will be served up in topical dishes.

In essence, I will take what I used in my dissertation – as well as that which I have considered since I completed that tome – and provide it in condensed form with a special emphasis on how each offering relates to undergraduate education and why I believe that matters to you, the esteemed readers of the John N. Gardner Institute’s Blog.

I am going to devote a yet-to-be determined number of postings to discussing topics such as the role of the market and military in higher education in the United States since Eisenhower first uttered the phrase “Military-Industrial-Complex” – and, in the process, I will explore how and why Eisenhower’s warned-against-entity became what Fulbright came to label the military-industrial-academic complex. I will delve into the student-as-consumer movement and examine both what happens when education becomes a commodity and when race becomes commoditized in educational institutions. Other postings will address labor in the marketized postsecondary sector – including the struggles that confront the humanities in the era of “the new normal” – where financial firms are too big to fail and Homeland Security research institutes seem more abundant on campuses than Latin departments.

I need to make clear that I am not writing this series as an angry young man with a distain for all things commercial. I don’t feel that ROTC should not be on campus, and I am not anti-capitalist. Personally, I feel that colleges and universities cannot be ivory towers – they cannot be disconnected from the lived experience, and the lived experience in the United States is historically connected with the capitalist system and the military – often in ways that we may not even be able to fully comprehend or perhaps even perceive at all. To do otherwise – that is, to argue for the separation of the academy from the society and culture that it is supposed to both reflect on and shape – would make colleges and universities irrelevant. They would become of little use to the people and society they are supposed to serve.

But I also don’t feel that the academy’s sole or even consistent primary purpose should be to serve as the developer of workers, consumers, weapons, and/or soldiers. I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments Jennifer Washburn expressed in her book University Inc. There, while making the point that the market is not perfect, she quotes the award winning economist (and former Business Week journalist and New Republic economics editor) Robert Kuttner, who wrote,

Markets do a great deal well, but they fall far short of being perfectly self-regulating . . . They spill over into realms where they don’t belong. A society that was a grand auction block would not be a political democracy worth having. And it would be far less attractive economically than its enthusiasts imagine . . . Everything must not be for sale.

My subsequent blog entries will explore the ongoing need and manner in which colleges and universities must work to balance between the market and martial demands on one hand, and the ideals and values that most colleges and universities have committed to uphold on the other. In a broad sense, it seeks to answer the question, “Is there room for the Socratic concept of the examined life in twenty-first century undergraduate education and, if so, what forms does that examination take?”

Socrates once defined the educated person as someone who knows they do not know it all. Because I fancy myself an educated person, I draw on the aforementioned Socratic definition to admit that I certainly don’t know it all – even (and perhaps especially) after a 335 page dissertation. For that reason, I invite your responses to that which I offer in this and all subsequent posts.

And while on the topic of subsequent posts, stay tuned next for an entry (or entries) on the role of for-profit consultants in higher education and the temporalization of the University-Military-Industrial Complex . . .

Monday, February 14, 2011

Let’s Run the Campus Like the New Zealanders Run Their Customs

Yesterday I arrived, with my wife, for the first time in New Zealand, entering at Queenstown, the adventure tourism capitol of the world, where I encountered the most thorough Customs review I have encountered anywhere in the world. The New Zealanders are serious about protecting their beautiful country from 2 things: 1) people that would overstay their welcome and thus increase the country’s population and add more obligations for the taxpayer; and 2) natural, biologicial, infestations that could be carried in on clothing, in food, etc and wreak havoc on the landscape and agricultural resources of the nation. I answered a question honestly on the Customs arrival form that yes, I was bringing in to the country a pair of hiking boots. They were definitely removed and inspected. And these people have good reason to want to limit excess immigration: this is an incredibly desirable place to live and it could soon be overwhelmed by others fleeing the world’s craziness (like we have in the US). Who wouldn’t want to live in a country with universal health care, relatively low crime, no great disparities in income and wealth, a wonderful climate, a passion for peace and preserving their environment, and no guns in every house!

But what really captured my attention when I entered the country was that we had to prove (by some verifiable means upon entry) that we had a specific plan for leaving the country—e.g. like a receipt for purchased airline reservations out of the country. And suddenly it hit me: hey, they aren’t trying to retain me. They really are serious about wanting me to leave! Now this got me thinking (a dangerous thing for those who work with me)...

So what if we ran the campus like the New Zealanders run their Customs’ operation: demanding that every student had a plan for exit? What if we had policies and practices insuring that students did leave, after they accomplished their purposes and ours for them, just like New Zealand has a policy that insures that Betsy Barefoot and I leave after we attain our purposes for coming here (a great vacation that enhances our learning too!).

What if we told the students, yes, this is a beautiful place. You are going to have the time of your life. We are going to stimulate you in many ways you can’t even yet imagine. We are going to transform you, give you a new sense of purpose and the mental tools to live a much richer life. You will love this place so much you will never want to leave. But you must. We are going to be the sanest place you ever visited. You will be safer here than any place you have lived because there are no guns on campus. And every student will have a special student health insurance policy that will protect you from any medical challenges during college. What if as the students entered we succeeded in dramatically raising their expectations for how they would perform and what they would experience subsequently?

But no, that is not what we do. Instead of trying to get them to leave the best living experience of their lives, all we can think about is “retaining” them. It doesn’t matter how long they stay. Just as long as they pay (note the rhyme). Our only purpose for them is what they do for us: pay us. Just as long as they comprise those FTE’s, we aim to please (note the rhyme again).

You say Gardner jests. No, he once had a wife who told him repeatedly not to attempt to tell jokes because they failed miserably. Actually, I am being very serious. I think that if we could somehow be more deliberate in our transformative roles as higher educators, we could create campus experiences where students would never want to leave—but we would make them do so. However, as our student performance rates suggest, and our obsession on retaining students as opposed to providing them with high impact learning experiences, this is not what we do.

But we could. And a few places do. Where does your place fall out in Gardner’s fantasy about running a campus like New Zealand runs its country?

-John N. Gardner