Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What Would YOU Do if Only You Had The Time and the Money...?

John N. Gardner

I just finished a week’s vacation in which I just flunked setting my work aside. Instead, other than my conversations with my very smart wife, Betsy Barefoot, I found the most stimulating thing I did mentally was to generate, share, and exchange thoughts with one of my colleagues in our non-profit Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education, Dr. Drew Koch. We were corresponding about a concept paper we are putting together for a foundation. I find at age 67 and 44 years into my career there are few exercises that I find more stimulating for what creativity and capacity for big idea generation I have left (actually, I find I have a lot left and am much better at this than I was even 10-12 years ago).
copyright 2011, Laura K. Huhn
I will share an experience I had that I recommend to others, hopefully including you, dear reader, as a source of stimulation for the big idea—the big idea for you to contribute to improve American higher education. And any of this could do it. As my colleagues in my work group say: “If John can do it, anyone can.”

I was introduced to this way of thinking by a professional godfather and mentor that I was/am priviliged to have had, Russ Edgerton, former President of the American Association for Higher Education, and former senior higher education program grants officer for The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Russ and I ran into each other at a conference in Washington, D.C in January of 1998. He honored me by attending a session I was doing. And after the session he asked me if we could have a cup of coffee together. During the conversation that followed he asked me: “John, if you had one to five million dollars, and one to five years to do anything you always wanted to do but never before had the time or the money to do, to improve American higher education, what would you most want to do?”

Well, anyone that knows me would assert that I am rarely speechless. But I was in response to Russ’s question. Patient and wise leader he is, Russ cut me some slack and suggested we get together in another couple of months to resume the conversation and to give me time to come up with an appropriate response.

We met two months later and I still didn’t have a response. So the Foundation made a planning grant to make it possible for me to plan the answer to Russ’s question. In turn, that made possible the first grant from The Trusts to lay the foundation for what has been me and my wife, Betsy Barefoot’s, professional work since 1999.

I didn’t realize then but the structure of the question, and its focus, would return to me time and time again, as the mental parameter for regenerating creativity to make possible new work to improve American higher education.

Thank goodness we live in a country that has this unique structure of the private foundation, a non-profit organization to invest and spend the largesse accumulated by leaders of capitalism. The enormously disproportionate business acumen and successes of the Carnegie, Ford, Rockefeller, Pew, Gates, Walton, leaders of US business, have, in turn, made possible a myriad of improvement strategies for our education system. And my wife and I have been greatly honored and privileged to be the recipients of such support to make new initiatives possible.

So I find myself still asking 13 years later: “What if I had XX dollars and XX years what would I like to do about……………? Actually, I never start with a dollar amount or range. For me it is always about some problem I want to attack and have the immodesty and confidence to think that I could somehow address and improve if only I could win this investor’s confidence.

And so I am still at it. What are the big problems? What do I know about them? What could I do about them? What would I like to do about them? What would my vision be? Who could I get to go along with this vision? How could I create many other winners who ultimately end up owning and doing the real work that matters?

One person can always make a difference.

One big idea can always make a difference.

All you have to do is allow yourself to dream, ask, and lay it out to a sympathetic ear.

So what would you like to do if only you had the time and money—to improve our higher education system? For me, that has been, and still is, the basic question. This is for the public good, not mine, although this sure is a lot of fun.