Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Twelve Years Later: What Do I Miss?

John N. Gardner
In a few days it will be June 30, the anniversary of my “retirement” date from full-time active service from the University of South Carolina. Each year I use this as a marker to reflect on what life is like away from a daily existence on a University campus, what I have learned, what (and who) I miss, what I have gained.
Admittedly, my “retirement” was “early” and after thirty-two and a half years. And it has not led to retirement at all. I still have an appointment with duties at the University as “Senior Fellow” (translate: elder statesman). And I have a full-time appointment as a CEO of a non-profit higher education organization that does planning with colleges and universities.
My annual reminiscences (not ruminations, not regrets) usually go like this:
I am glad I left at the top of my game and before I was at the point when people wanted me to go
I am glad I agreed to a retirement party extravaganza which we turned into a celebration of all that my work had stood for in the First-Year Experience. It was a wonderful ritual for closure.
I am glad I held a personal, one-on-one closed door conversation with every person who reported to me so I could share what they had meant to me
I am thankful that the leaders I worked for and with wanted me to have some continuing involvement and hence my appointment as Senior Fellow
I am proud of the job that has been done by my successors in making our first-year campus programs and our national and international work stronger than ever
I am grateful to my University for being more invested in our work than ever
I am thankful I spent my entire campus-based career in one place and never even flirted for a second about cheating on USC and forsaking her for another
I am thankful for all the outstanding leaders I worked for, all of whom I learned from and grew as a result of.
But my most recurrent thoughts are about what I miss the most:
I miss the students
I miss the faculty
I miss the staff
I miss the collegiality, the camaraderie, the partnerships
I miss the sanity, the good will, the servant leader ethos,  the oasis of liberalism in a true wasteland of reactionary politics at the state level
I miss the gracious, generous, appreciative people of South Carolina who have always deserved better leaders than they have received
I miss the sense of contributing each day to an institution that has been here before me and will long outlive me
I miss the opportunity each day to contribute to the ongoing contribution of a great public university towards achieving social justice for all the citizens of the state
I miss more specifically about the students:  their energy; their intellectual curiosity; their risk taking; their open mindedness; their courage; their great work ethic; their civility and politeness; their deference to their elders; their passion for serving fellow students; their youth; their liminal state between adolescence and adulthood; their radiant sexuality; their searching for meaning and desire to make a difference; their beauty; their wholesomeness; their ability to learn so rapidly and so well.
Truly, the students are what I miss the most. My wife would tell you if you, she and I were together, that I miss them so much that when I encounter them as servers in restaurants, I immediately interview them like a first meeting between academic advisor and student advisee.

I have heard it said that being a full professor at a research university is the best job in America. Who would ever want to leave it? I understand that question and some of the answers. What a great life.

What do you love about your life in higher education? What will you miss when you retire? How can you make the most of it before then? It’s all up to you.

Monday, June 27, 2011

We Have Failed This Generation

John N. Gardner
 At each of the conferences I attend each year that are sponsored by the University of South Carolina’s National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, my favorite session is one we offer at every event: “Spirituality, Authenticity, and Wholeness”. We have been doing this since 1998 and were inspired to do so by Sandy and Lean Astin, Laura Rendon, and Art Chickering who facilitated a similar session we first attended to see this process in action. I just attended the 24th Annual International Conference on the First-Year Experience and in this particular session a Japanese higher educator made this statement: “We have failed this generation”.
“We have failed this generation.” I immediately wanted to confirm my assumptions about what she meant, but also to push this notion as far as I could in my own thinking about my own country’s higher education culture.
My Japanese colleague was referring to the recent man made damage and trauma caused after the natural tragedy of the tsunami when it soon became apparent that the much longer term disaster was one caused by the melt down of an electric power plant. How could this have happened in an era when science, engineering, and corporate cultures have triumphed in so many ways over nature. Well, the more we are learning the more it appears that WE caused this disaster:
  • We should not have allowed such a plant to have been built so close to the coast
  • We should not have permitted the collusion of government regulators and corporate managers who looked the other way about breaches in operational security, partly out of concerns for the corporate bottom line but also out of our supreme modern man confidence that we can manage such technologies at a very low level of risk and an accompanying high tolerance for a public that is kept deliberately unaware. Yes, we were smart enough to have known better. We had the technological capacity to have prevented this but not the moral and ethical integrity, courage, values, to prevent it. And, hence, we have failed this generation.
I can think of all kinds of examples in my own country where we have not used the moral reasoning, the ethical integrity to have prevented many human misfortunes which we have the intellectual knowledge to prevent or alleviate.
But her question got me to thinking as I often to about the fundamental assertion behind my work of the last 12 years when I have been leading a non-profit organization whose goal is to get colleges and universities to take more responsibility for student learning (that was the mantra of the senior higher education program officer of The Pew Charitable Trusts, Russell Edgerton, who awarded us our first grant to initiate our particular version of this larger line of reform work in American higher education.

So, my thinking went, if we  were to truly take more responsibility for student learning, how should we be serving this generation, particularly so as not to fail them. What can we be doing in our great colleges and universities to insure that there are no technologically caused disasters like we have just seen in Japan? What can we do to produce a more different kind of business executive, broker, financier, who will use their college taught talents in ways that are different from those that just caused our own financial tsunmi? I could go on.
I keep asking different versions of her question:
  • Have we failed this generation?
  • How well are we serving this generation?
  • What is it we need to help them to save themselves from?
  • What would it mean to save a generation?
  • What does it mean to fail a generation?
  • When we act responsibly in our institutions, just what are our responsibilities to this generation? How far do they extend?
  • How do we talk about this? 
  • Are we talking about it?