Wednesday, April 27, 2011

At Last, We are Finally Asked to Sacrifice

John N. Gardner
Americans told like to be told we have problems or even remotely suggested that we might not be first in all things that matter. Some of us remember what happened to President Jimmy Carter’s ratings when he gave an oval office speech sitting there in a sweater, urging us to turn our thermostats down to conserve energy; and went on also to warn us about a “malaise” inflicting America’s collective psyche. Americans rewarded him by making him a one term president.
And then we had President George W. Bush who launched an unnecessary, unprovoked war, while simultaneously cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans and spending away an accumulated budget surplus, while exhorting us all to “go shopping”.
And the pendulum has just swung back. Finally, we have a President who told us on Wednesday, April 13 in a speech at George Washington University about the national deficit problem, that we all needed to “sacrifice”. It’s about time. Admittedly, one party has been saying consistently that we need to cut programs and support for the poor, children, and seniors while cutting taxes another 10% for the wealthiest of Americans, but that strategy wasn’t being called “sacrifice”, although if enacted, it clearly would be a “sacrifice” for most Americans for the benefit of a few Americans. No, now we have a President who is finally telling us we ALL need to SACRIFICE. I think the majority of us, even though we long for the not-so-long-ago days when we could use our ever increasing in value homes like the ATM machines they became, we know that sacrifices have to be made and most of us believe that all of us should make them. What will be the verdict on this President’s call for “sacrifice”. Stay tuned for November 2012. At last we have a clear defining of differences from which to choose.
In recent years there has been much praise, deservedly heaped upon “The Greatest Generation”, those who served our country during World War II. I was a child just after that war and I can remember both my parents and grandparents talking about the sacrifices they made. They told me how they went without gasoline, had to stay home, lacked many food types, and all volunteered at something to do with the war effort, like one of my grandmothers who folded bandages every day for our wounded. We prevailed because we sacrificed, all of us.
I am wondering how this call for sacrifice will play out on campuses. Our institutions are microcosms of the larger society. The same values play out there too. There are haves and have-nots. There are the richer and more powerful. Many have already been asked to sacrifice and have. Will our leaders at all levels emulate the President and call for shared sacrifices? The jury is out. I am making some predictions and my initial read is that although the academy is assumed to be more liberal, that many of its financial choices will be more similar to the opposition party than to what the President is calling for with his urging to “sacrifice”. What do you think? And what are you doing about this in your own sphere of influence?

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Tail Wagging the Dog

John N. Gardner

Recently I was a co-chair/co-moderator of a panel presentation/discussion at the annual meeting of the nation’s largest regional accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission.  The title of this “Roundtable” session was “Rural and/or Small Institution Environments: Challenges for New Student Success”. I blog here about the most interesting point (for me) to emerge from this 75 minute activity: the tail wagging the dog.
Specifically, the tail wagging the dog in many, many small and/or rural institutions, is the extraordinary influence of athletics on every aspect of institutional life and operations:
·      admissions
·      financial aid
·      the curriculum
·      levels of classroom engagement
·      faculty/staff relationships
·      institutional governance
·      the role of alumni
·      town/gown relations
·      student discipline issues
·      patterns of student dating, socializing
·      patterns of student alcohol and drug use
·      student priorities for time allocation
·      student sleep deprivation
·      standards  of ethics in all areas of campus life
The session focused on many aspects of the ways in which small and rural colleges attempt to work with their students, with many opportunities, problems, challenges, strengths and advantages. But the area of greatest consensus was that the tail was wagging the dog, that the allocation of attention and resources to athletics was the primary driver for institutional values and rewards. One institution reported that this year its student body was “only” 73% student athlete which was a great improvement over several years ago when it was over 90%. This concern about the excessive influence of athletics was characteristic of institutions from all 20 states represented, and both four-year and even community colleges—some of which in rural areas do have not only athletics but on-campus residential accommodations.
This conference followed shortly on the heels of the annual US obsession with March Madness, the athletic equivalent of the college basketball World Series. What struck me was the contrast between the stereotypical institutions where we think the role of athletics looms large (Division I, large, fraternity/sorority/heavy drinking, on campus residential culture all associated especially with football, returning alums, and the corporatization of collegiate sports) and these small, rural institutions. In reality, it appeared that when considering proportionality, the impact of athletics was far greater at the small places than the big ones, even though to the naked and untrained eye one would never assume this.  Conclusion: the influence of athletics and its value systems and their inherent conflict with the traditional values of the academy, have truly trickled all the way down the food chain. There is almost no place we can escape this.
So I have asked the Commission if next year we couldn’t have a session specifically focused on the tail wagging the dog and what is its relationship between how we go about academic quality assurance in the US: through a process we call “regional reaccreditation.” I am confident they will arrange such a session and I predict it will fill the house and result in a lot more educators leaving more disturbed than when they walked in the door. But that would be a good thing.
Author’s note: this blog was written by a former, small college, Division III, varsity athlete!