Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Musing Upon the Commencement of Annual Vacation


John N. Gardner
President

I had an experience in the few days before I begin an annual vacation with my wife, Betsy Barefoot,  that has me musing and hoping that I will soon forget it. Betsy and I spend a week—or actually more each year—at the annual Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina. This is an arts lover’s extravaganza with a plethora of options for fine drama, classical music both orchestral and chamber, jazz, ballet, modern dance, opera, choral music and more. We already have tickets for more than 20 events and we won’t stop at that in this wonderful historically preserved city with some of the best dining options in the country. I really need a rest.

This week I gave a speech to a group of college presidents. Overall they were an appreciative audience, I think.  But one of them really nailed me and gave me feedback unchallenged by the others that she was disappointed that my presentation was not sufficiently “data oriented”. She reminded me in a mildly lecturing tone that “we are a data driven system”. I was well aware that my talk was though loaded with intellectual concepts, educational philosophy and principles, a value system, a call for advocacy for certain practices, and my exhorting them to do certain things. To the extent that I used data to advocate for certain practices, it was connected to retention, an outcome I am quite ambivalent about as I have written previously about before in this forum
Well, she was correct. My remarks were not data driven. They rarely are. It’s not that I am not interested in data. In fact, in my work at the University of South Carolina, some of my most important educational leadership decisions to drive improvement of activities were profoundly influenced by data produced for me by external researchers on the effectiveness of programs that I was responsible for. It became my mantra to constantly tell others what I had learned from data driven assessment and what decisions to drive improvement had I made based on the data. But I still wasn’t a data person. I was still trying to fulfill the original objective of the President of USC who conceived of University 101, Thomas F. Jones, my first mentor at USC. That overarching goal was “to teach students TO LOVE the University. And I am persuaded we did. We learned how to do that. And we trained hundreds of employees how to do that.

But how do you count and measure whether or not students love the University and their experience there? In my career I have had (and still have) many other goals that I suspect are not very easily empirically measureable. I wanted to be a positive role model for my students. How do I measure that? I wanted to teach them to be open to new and different ways of seeing the world? How do I measure that? I told my students on the first day of every term that what I most wanted to do was to “teach for epiphany”. I explained to them that it was my greatest hope that each of them could have at some point in my course a transformative insight that would influence the course of lives. To me that is what college should be all about, any kind of college for any kind of student. But that’s not what today’s campus leaders,  most of them, want to hear about because they know that their funders, legislators, etc don’t want to hear about teaching for epiphany. After all, if it can’t be tied directly to something measureable, and to jobs, and retention and graduation rates, it can’t be worth doing.

I think I am going to spend lots of time on this vacation thinking about how I can measure whether or not our students have epiphanies.