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.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Musing About March Madness and Money Part III

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

After setting the broader commercial context associated with big-time college sports in the first part of this three-part blog installment, and focusing specifically on the plight of minority student athletes in second, I use this, my third and last installment in the “Musing About March Madness and Money” series to make some suggestions about what might be possible.  In this section, I get to the “What if?” questions – questions designed to stimulate thought and possibilities for minimizing the exploitation of student athletes and maximizing their degree completion rates. 

And with that introduction, and all the content and context of the past two installments as a foundation, here are the questions.

What if we were to admit that the so-called “revenue sports” are indeed all about revenue? (In case their name did not tip us off.)

Since admitting this requires us to acknowledge that market principles are, in fact, guiding what goes on in big-time college sports, what if we were to use those market principles to incentivize the very student athletes who seem to be getting exploited under the current system?

What if big-time college sport participants, and by this I mean the universities that field revenue sport teams, were required to show the books to their revenue sport student athletes and their families on an annual basis? This would serve as a form of education for the student athlete who may erroneously believe that there is more “money in bank” than there actually is.  Or, in some cases, it could be an eye opener for the student athletes – something that makes them realize that they are, in fact, the “unpaid professionals” about which Zimbalist has written.

What if big-time college sports were required to annually show their revenue sport student athletes and their families salary information for past revenue sport athletes who did and did not graduate from the institution in a manner that mitigated the impact that a few who may have landed lucrative professional sport contracts?  This would not be that different from what many career service offices do via their recent graduate salary surveys, and it could certainly help underscore the need to complete a degree and not wait for the nearly elusive professional sport contract.

What if the universities that actually had a positive balance after covering all intercollegiate sport expenses with the money generated from their revenue sports (and sports merchandise sales and TV contract monies and other forms of sports related cash stream) – and there are not many of them – were required to give a portion of that positive balance back to the revenue sport athletes who made that balance possible?  This could be provided in the form of a one-time payment once the student completed his or her baccalaureate degree and sport eligibility.  It could also be provided in the form of a scholarship for graduate study once the student completed his or her baccalaureate degree and sport eligibility.  Thus, the money would serve as added incentive to finish a degree and/or pursue further education.   

I realize that some of these seemingly simple approaches might very well be simplistic – that the devil could be in the details.  But we seem to have a system that professes to be one thing and in fact is something very different.  A system that exploits many of the students it is supposed to support – particularly (but not exclusively) students from a racial demographic that has experienced centuries of exploitation in the United States. 

What if we questioned the status quo in big-time college athletics in an effort to be more equitable to student athletes and to encourage them to complete degrees?

What if big-time college sports were required to walk the talk?

What if?

Monday, April 11, 2011

An Alternative to Cries from the Tea Party: Let’s hear it for a tax increase

John N. Gardner

I am fortunate to live in a beautiful, peaceful little town of 6000 in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. Like towns all across America, citizens are being prepared by local officials and newspapers for draconian cuts coming next year. We are being warned to expect mass firings of teachers and increases in class sizes in public schools. The news is very bleak. The political party driving these changes keeps saying “we have to make a change”. There is no talk of increasing the ledger on the revenue side, only of cutting on the expenditure side.

After watching this terrible train wreck get closer and closer my wife and I decided to write your local paper and issue a call for a tax increase to prevent teacher layoffs and harm to our children. This blog post contains the content of our letter. I hope that some of my readers will consider writing a similar letter to their own local newspaper. Those of us who have benefited the most from education must take a stand to preserve it for those less fortunate and less powerful. Here is what we said:

Letter to Transylvania Times
Subject: We Support A Tax Increase to Protect Our Schools!

Dear Editor:

We write to share our preference for a tax increase to support our local public schools and to invite other citizens who might share our view, to join us in a similar expression. That’s right: you read correctly—we want a tax increase.

As context for a position we would like to present in this letter, we would want it understood that the undersigned authors of this letter are two, married (to each other) County residents and taxpayers of “retirement” age and who do not have, and have never had, any of our five children in any of our County Schools because they all grew up in other places before we moved here. We have lived in the County for nearly twelve years. One of the many reasons we moved here from South Carolina was that when we were in the exploratory phase of considering Transylvania County as our future home back in the mid-1990’s, we learned that the County’s progressive minded citizens had approved a school bond referendum back in 1996 by a two-to-one majority. Given the demographics of the County, with such a large retired population of senior citizens with no children in the school system to be concerned about, we thought this was quite remarkable. It let us know that Transylvania County citizens truly understood the powerful connection between taxation levels to support excellent local schools and the overall quality of life here in the County.

Recently, our excellent local newspaper, which thankfully presents fairly all points of views, has been keeping us all well informed about the real threat of significant cuts in funding for our local schools and the dismaying possibility that there will need to be significant layoffs and termination of schools’ personnel in our country. We don’t want that to happen and we are willing to invest our hard earned money to support our local community and its educators and children.

One of us had a mother that used to joke “there is no future in old age”. But there is, of course, a future for our children. We believe that our greatest responsibility is to do whatever is necessary, including making certain sacrifices, to provide the best possible future for our local children and hence for the quality of life in our local community.

We do not want to see a local property tax increase any more than the majority of citizens would. But we want even less to see any deterioration in the quality of our local schools. All of North Carolina, including this county, has made tremendous strides in catching up with the rest of the United States and has greatly improved public education over the past three decades. We do not want to see the clock set back. And, if necessary, we support higher taxation to prevent that from happening.  We want better schools for our community and we are willing to pay for it. We have had our education. Now we want local children to enjoy the wonderful opportunities we have had in our lives, all made possible through education.

Please join us in expressing your willingness to pay more taxes to protect, preserve, and enhance our local schools.

Thank you for your consideration.


Betsy O. Barefoot                           John N. Gardner