Thursday, August 18, 2011

My Favorite Day of the Year

John Gardner
I guess if I were pushed as to what is my favorite day of the academic year, I would have to choose the opening day, the day the faculty first gather after a long summer’s hiatus and the students return. Commencement would be my second, but a distant second. For nothing matches this opening day for optimism, the opportunity to begin again, resolutions, and a wonderful occasion to exchange gossip. And it’s an occasion to learn what the administration has done over the summer in our absence—we always return wondering about that.
I am thinking, and therefore writing, about this because today my wife, Betsy and I visited a small private university campus, and had the privilege of participating in this annual ritual. I just loved it. And I realized I needed it more this year than any in my now 44 year career. Why?
Because this ritual, the feelings it evokes, the traditions it follows, the hope it presages, is just so predictable. And I needed predictability more than ever this year.
What a year! Well, in case you have already forgotten it, something we all took for granted has just been wiped away: our United States triple AAA credit rating. Our President has told us, no matter, we are “still a triple AAA country”. I don’t think very many believe him. I know I don’t—even though I would like to believe him.
And the ability of our Congress to act rationally and for the greater good of the nation—we now know we can no longer respect that.
And what about my father’s political party, the party of fiscal stability? We can no longer count on it to pursue the kind of rational policies that any household in America would if it could: both cut expenditures and raise revenue.
I could go down the list. The list of our established institutions, the ones we used to count on. We can’t anymore.

But we can count on students to return to us each year, including many new and na├»ve ones. They come to us no matter what we charge them, no matter how much more our fees went up this year than the consumer price index. So let’s hear it for death, taxes (oops, by this I mean no new taxes), and new students. Thank goodness then for the students. I need them more than ever. And I need our optimistic beginning of school year fervor too. Let’s try to make it last—at least ‘til midterm. And if it doesn’t, well that’s OK, because we get to do this again next year.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Take Home to Campus Lesson from Debt Ceiling Debacle

John N. Gardner
We have really known it for a few years now that the US political process and legislative process had become dysfunctional, but it was the debt ceiling debate that confirmed it for hundreds of millions of people around the globe. The credit rating agency, S and P, was absolutely correct in its rationale arguing the US government could no longer be counted on as having the ability to take the necessary policy decisions to address its financial problems. As I have been doing my whole adult life, I immediately found myself asking: what is the take away lesson from this debacle for us higher education leaders? The biggest one for me is that campus-based leaders need to make sure they aren’t running their institutions like our Congress. Our minimum aspiration must be to lead better than Congress to avoid campus dysfunctionality. So here’s what I think our campus leaders need to do/not do:
  1. Put the long term institutional interests ahead of our own. Campus over self.
  2. Act as if we had to live with the consequences of our decisions for the rest of our careers even if we move on to new institutions seeking upward social mobility.
  3. Pursue policies that have a basis in reason, empirically verifiable evidence, and on values—but not primarily inflexible ideology.
  4. Pursue consensus and practice a willingness to compromise.
  5. Do not pay more attention to inflexible dogmatists than they deserve. They will wreck your campus if you cede too much ground to them.
  6. Treat your opponents with civility.
  7. Stay with your core objectives and do not flit from one administrative idea de jour to another. Your campus needs predictability. So stay the course. Lack of predictability leads to instability. Instability leads to anxiety and unwillingness to innovate and take risk.
  8. Do not throw complex problems begging for new and big picture thinking to reactionary groups for solution and resolution—e.g. like Congress. If your Faculty Senate can’t get beyond partisan divisions, create new ad-hoc leadership groups to grapple with the big issues.
  9. Make sure your top leaders (CEO/CAO) have tenure; otherwise they will view every tough question demanding a decision or position as one that could lead to a vote of no confidence and that will stop them in their tracks.
Tell yourself every day that you can and must do a better job of leading your organization than the Congress of the United States.

Monday, August 15, 2011

We Produced These Leaders: Where Did We Fail?

John N. Gardner

On the weekend that one of the three US credit rating agencies announced it was down grading the credit rating of the United States of America, and accompanied this with a statement which the whole world has also been thinking and saying—namely that the US government had become dysfunctional and could no longer be relied on as the pillar of stability in a highly unstable world—I found myself wondering what could we higher educators have done to prevent this sorry state of affairs? After all, we did provide college educations for these Congressional leaders who have succeeded in manufacturing a crisis that did not need to happen.
*How did we produce such ideologues? Didn’t we educate them to think more critically and analytically?
*Didn’t we educate these future Congressional representatives about the perils of interjecting religion into politics—separation of church and state, etc?
*Didn’t we teach them Econ 101 and basic history of economic depressions and recessions in this country—and most importantly what happened in 1937 when the Democrats cut off the stimulus and threw the country back into the Depression again only to be extricated by World War II?
*Didn’t we teach these adults anything about basic manners, courtesy, decent listening skills, a modicum of tolerance?
*Didn’t we teach them anything about seeking consensus and compromise? Apparently not. They have just learned win at all costs?
*What did we teach them in student government? Surely many of them were campus pols?
*Didn’t we teach them anything about big picture thinking, about the need to pursue the common good, occasionally putting the needs of the overall body politic above personal interests?
*Just what did we teach them? What did we do that had any lasting impact?
*And  most importantly, how can we do better going forward. The most common purpose all of us have in higher education, no matter what our roles, our disciplines, our institutional types is:  producing the next generation of our country’s leaders. We all have to own this. We have them in each and every one of our classes and student organizations, teams, anywhere we gather students in officially sponsored institutional activities, credit and non-credit.
Surely we can do better. Even more surely, we must.