John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Way Down South In Dixie

John N. Gardner

John teaching at USC_res-up
The tragic terrorist attack and related killings; the extraordinary forgiveness offered by the families of the victims; the visit of President Obama; the calls by the Governor of South Carolina and my University President, Harris Pastides, to take the flag down; and now as I write the formal debate in the South Carolina Legislature to take the flag down—all have unleashed a torrent of memories for me about my own experiences with racism and bigotry under the official auspices of the Confederate flag.

I lived in South Carolina for nearly 33 years, from 1967-1999, coming there involuntarily, staying by choice, and leaving also by choice—although not leaving completely because of my two sons and friends who live in SC and my continuing appointment with the University of South Carolina. I am hardly a detached observer of the recent events, which have moved me profoundly.

My wife, Betsy Barefoot, and I had just been this June in Charleston, the Holy City, so named because of all its historic churches, including the one turned into a charnel house, for nine days during the annual, internationally acclaimed Spoleto Arts Festival. We had walked by the site of the massacre several times just thirteen days before the tragedy.

Looking way back to my relative youth, I did not want to come to South Carolina, but that is where the US Air Force sent me. I volunteered for Vietnam to get an alternative duty station but Shaw AFB is where Uncle Sam sent me. I was a military trained psychiatric social worker stationed at an Air Force hospital in Sumter, S.C. This was two and a half years after Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act. The base was fully integrated in housing, schools, everything. But as soon as one left either the front or back gates of the base, you entered another country that was totally segregated by race. But at least the Air Force showed us how we all could and would live and serve together.

My first day on the base I was introduced to an America I had never experienced before. I was ordered to report to my Squadron Commander for an individual orientation to the unit briefing. As I stood rigidly at attention I looked down and saw that he was an African American. Wow. Other than one of my drill sergeants in Basic and Officer Training, I had never been under the command of anyone whose skin was not the same color as mine.

This African American gave me the gift of my lifetime career. He gave me a direct order to perform volunteer service in my off duty hours by engaging in university teaching for the University of South Carolina. And he specifically told me to whom I was to report to arrange this. That was a life changing event.

A few weeks later I walked in to the President’s office of Morris College, a small, historically black private college in Sumter, S.C. I told his secretary I wanted to see about being a volunteer, non- compensated, adjunct instructor. It was a very awkward moment for her. But she secured the willingness of the President to meet with me. He was very polite to me and thanked me and told me he would take my offer under consideration. But I never heard further. I didn’t realize how he must have thought I was from another planet. In 1967 white men just didn’t walk in off the street and offer to teach for free at a black college. Coincidentally, I am spending a day on this campus this coming August.

During this same spring term of 1967, one night I was eating in the hospital “chow hall” and a call came out for volunteers to take an ambulance out behind the black gate where there was a civilian who had been reported as having been struck by a car. I volunteered. When we arrived at the scene we found an African American man already dead. So we called the Sumter County EMT operation but we did not specify the race of the deceased. When they arrived, they told us that they would have to send the coroner’s pick up truck, because they only put white people in that ambulance.

I soon noted in South Carolina that there were many restaurants that had signs on the front door proclaiming “WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO REFUSE SERVICE TO ANYONE.”

Late that spring, as my first college course was into final exam period, I drove to the nearby Poinsett State Park in search of a quiet restful place to grade my students’ final exams. I engaged a park ranger in conversation. He told me the federal government had ruined his beloved park because now “colored” people would “take over” the park and whites would not want to come. I guess he assumed that because I was white that he could share this with me. In my ensuing 31 years in South Carolina, I participated in many family reunions in South Carolina state parks. Yes, blacks did indeed come. But so did whites. The prophecy of doom was totally unfounded.

The following fall, 1967, on the opening night of my Sociology 101 class at a Regional Campus of the University of South Carolina, I began my class of 80 students, on a Friday night at 7.30. One, only one, student, was black. And he sat in the very back row. I knew that this was a moment of history. He alone was racially integrating this campus. After I went over the syllabus I asked if anyone had any questions.  A white male student said “Yes, sir, I want to know what you think about us having to have N—— in our class.” I couldn’t believe—didn’t want to believe– what I was hearing. I knew this was it. I was about to loose the whole ballgame. So I decided I would try to finesse it. My reply, delivered with my best scowl was: “I don’t believe I heard you. Would you care to repeat your question?” I hoped he got my not so subtle message and would not repeat the question. But he did. So I said: “This time I heard you. And you have just violated one of the principles of this course which is that we all are going to respect each other’s dignity regardless of differences in our demographic characteristics. Now do you have any other questions?” Surely he would get the message and let the matter drop. But he didn’t. So this time I said in the best bluff I could muster up: “Look, I am an Air Force trained killer and if you don’t get up and leave this classroom I am going to come down your row and bodily remove you!” He rose and walked out.  I honestly don’t know what I would have done had he remained in the classroom.

From 1983-96 I was the University’s Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs for that campus and in that capacity I came each year to the graduation ceremony. And as I looked out into the totally, racially integrated audience, I thought of that one brave young man who took that class with me in 1967 and paved the way for all these other students.

During the next semester, in late February, 1968, I was teaching Sociology 101 one weekday night to Nursing students enrolled in a degree program the University was offering at a small hospital in a rural county seat in Orangeburg, about 45 miles from the State’s capitol. Literally as the class was underway, all hospital operations were thrown into pandemonium as the victims from a mass shooting were brought into the hospital. That night was the occurrence of what went down in US history as “the Orangeburg Massacre.” Thirty-three black college students, part of a larger crowd who had been protesting the refusal of white owner of a bowling alley to admit blacks to his business (four years after the Civil Rights Act), were all shot in the back, by the SC Highway Patrol. Three of them died. Congress responded by passing the Omnibus Crime Control Act to provide funds for training of police and national guard troops in crowd control tactics. So two years later when white students rioted at my university, they were not shot but they were tear gassed. That was progress. The highway patrol shooters were processed in both the state and federal judicial systems and no jury would convict them.

Later in Spring term, 1968, Martin Luther King was murdered on a Thursday. My class was the next evening. So I decided to deliver a homily about his life and times and suspended all other regular class activities. That class became only about Dr. King’s life and accomplishments. I did a reading from four different pieces of his writings. The next Friday night, the campus chief executive officer met with me and told me that a group of students had come to see him complaining that I was a “N—– Lover.” I was urged to refrain from class consideration of “controversial” topics, including most notably, the war in Vietnam.

I had come to work full-time at the University of South Carolina at Columbia, in the fall of 1970. I had my military experience honorably behind me, and also two years as an Instructor of History at the former state supported women’s normal school, Winthrop College. Although I was popular with the students there and respected by my colleagues, I had run afoul of the administration, which non-renewed me because of my liberal civil rights activities. Specifically, that meant they were displeased with another professor and me who had founded a local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

To my relief, and delight, in contrast, I found that academic freedom was alive and well at the University of South Carolina. Before leaving Winthrop I had taught one summer in its Upward Bound program. Federal site inspectors found the program in non-compliance for establishing a hostile climate towards the students. After arriving at USC I applied for a summer teaching position with the University’s own Upward Bound program, for which I was accepted on the faculty. The director of that program, the University’s then chief student affairs officer, a salty retired naval officer, told me: “Well, if you enjoyed teaching in that other lousy Upward Bound program, you are going to have an orgasm in our program!” The USC program did not quite live up to that literal billing but it was transformative for me as a young college professor. What I learned were two things: 1) how to motivate students when I could not use grades as the carrot or stick; and 2) how to understand and empathize with black kids who had grown up in de jure segregated school systems.

I learned that my USC had been the first southern predominantly white university to seek and accept an Upward Bound program in 1966, because we were the first to commit to racially integrate the residence halls, a requirement of receiving the federal grant.

And this extraordinary Upward Bound program showed our President what could be done and should be done for all entering students, and not just the relatively few who received special funding from the Federal government. What he had seen in Upward Bound in terms of student transformation led him to incorporate a number of similar experiences into the design he influenced for the launching of our now famous, University 101 course. He invited me to a summer think tank to design that course in 1972 and two years later, I was his third choice to become the first faculty director of that program, but the first two turned him down. Unlike me, they were both tenured full professors.

Three years after we launched University 101, it was discovered by my beloved USC colleague, Paul Fidler, in research he conducted on the effectiveness of University 101, that black students who participated in University 101 were achieving greater gains in predicted versus earned GPA’s and retention than were white students. I took great satisfaction in this unintended reverse discrimination in favor of these students whose ancestors in SC had been enslaved and discriminated against ever since.

In 1974 I represented my alma mater, Marietta College, at the inauguration of a new president at the South Carolina Episcopalian HBCU, Voorhees College. There I witnessed the amazing spectacle of the former segregationist Dixiecrat candidate, Strom Thurmond, sitting through that whole ceremony and courting the black vote. Times had changed thanks to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Now “those people” could vote.

My university also became in the 70’s the first of our institutional peer group to have an African American become SGA President. This was truly national “news” and Walter Cronkite ran it as his lead story one night, to my pride and pleasure. That young man later became a psychiatrist and a member of the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Faculty.

For much of my time at USC black students had higher graduation rates than our white students. In 1986 my colleague, Michael Welsh, did a study, supported by the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education, contrasting the characteristics of black students who graduated as compared to black students who had not graduated. What he found was that the graduates were more likely:

  1. to have taken University 101
  2. to have been a member of a black greek affiliated student organization
  3. to have had a black roommate as a first-year student
  4. to have had at least one black faculty member for a course
  5. to have been a member of a student organization that was advised by a black faculty or staff member

In 1998, the year before I left South Carolina for North Carolina, everything seemed to come full circle. For one thing, a former student of mine who had been my undergraduate advisee in our Bachelor of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies degree program, David Beasley, ran for a second term as Governor. One of his platform planks as the Republican candidate, was for the removal of the Confederate flag. He was resoundingly defeated. The candidate who did win, the son of one of my fellow faculty members, invited me to the Inaugural Ball. At this black tie event, I noticed an African American gentleman whom I thought I recognized. Then it hit me. This was Gary Bell whom I had taught in Upward Bound about 25 years previously. I approached him and addressed him as “Mr. Bell.” He quickly corrected me and suggested I address him as “Dr. Bell.” We caught up on each other’s lives and I learned that he had gone on to undergraduate school at Tuskegee and then to medical school and then returned to practice medicine in Columbia. He gave me feedback that I have never forgotten. He told me that I was his first teacher who had ever asked him to write anything, which meant that I assumed he had any ideas worth writing. When he told me this at first I found it hard to believe. But he assured me, that up to that point in his school history, he had never been asked to write anything, literally. For Dr. Bell had been another one of my students who had come up through the segregated school system of South Carolina, where black kids had shorter school year terms and vastly inferior education for, as we all knew, too much education could ruin a good field hand.

For most of my time at the University I saw what I believed was a powerful laboratory at work for how we all could live, work, recreate, eat, date, marry, raise families together. We were the new south. The Confederate flag flying proudly just a block from the University campus did not represent the University—or most of the state that I had come to know. It has been time, for a long time, to remove that symbol of the power structure that enslaved other human beings, once and for all.

My experiences such as those related above, have made me whatever it is that I am today as an educator and citizen. I am grateful to South Carolina, for all that is has taught me, for better or worse. I believe that henceforth, things are in the direction of “for the better.” I want that for my two grandchildren who live there and for all  their fellow citizens.

Do It: Mystery Shop Your Own Institution

John N. Gardner

Summer is normally a time when my wife, Betsy Barefoot, and I convert our mountaintop home in the western Blue Ridge Mountains into summer camp for visiting grandchildren.

But this year we did something different. We took two of our grandchildren on trips for college admissions visits. It was a real eye opener. Let me get right to the point of this posting: if you haven’t been on the Admissions tour of your own campus, do it. But “mystery shop” it if you can pass incognito. You need to know what your prospective students are being told to expect. The process of creating expectations for your incoming students is tremendously important for influencing the outcomes you want for their college experience. This is when you can begin to spell out what is the history and traditions of the place, its market niche, its core values, its promised experiences to come.

I want to report on one visit we made to a national, competitive, selective, research, university (not my own).

My 17 year-old granddaughter especially wanted to visit this institution. She is an outstanding student, academically and athletically. She had heard in her peer group that—let’s call it University X or UX, was “awesome” and that students there had a great deal of “fun.” We also had a fourteen year old grandchild along who aspires to be an engineer. He is also a high performing kid.

When you arrive at UX for the Admissions tour you enter a “Vistor’s Center.” The lobby and waiting areas feature many posters and symbolic messages largely revolving around X’s athletic programs. There is one prominent display in a case under glass reporting X being named as the “#1 tailgate” in the region. That point was driven home verbally at least three times on the subsequent tour. In my way of thinking “tailgate” is code for excessive consumption of alcohol before, during, and after football games. I am sure some others on the tour made the same connection, particularly the prospective students. However,  the tour guide made it clear that tailgating was not just for students. She reported that everything associated with football was also for the “family.” We were told repeatedly that coming to X is like belonging to a family.

When you go to a big place you might as well start out being processed in large groups because that is going to be the way the place works. On this summer Saturday morning, the “tour” consisted of approximately 130 prospective students and their families. This cohort was definitely drawn from a national population base.

The formal introduction began in an auditorium style configuration. We were asked how we were that morning and when we did not reply in a sufficiently loud and enthusiastic manner, we were instructed to repeat our answers to that question, several times. The expectation was clear: the X leaders wanted us to show some enthusiasm.

X did not have any professional staff from Admissions or elsewhere. This group of 130 had four undergraduate student leaders. I reasonably assumed that they had been carefully selected, trained and scripted.

As we waited for opening remarks, a slide show rotated on one screen. There was print material on some of the slides, but no accompanying music or voice over. The font for much of the print was too small for me to read and I was sitting in about the fourth row back, in the center.

The student master of ceremonies rattled off some basic information about admissions procedures and then asked if anyone had any questions. It was my interpretation that the sub text from the group leader was that this was not really the time or place for questions and the student leader answered them brusquely and impatiently, obviously wanting to get on with the tour.

Thankfully, not all 130 were going to tour together. We were split into four groups. As each prospective student’s name was called out to effect this division, the students were instructed that when their name was called they were to respond as loudly as possible “GO —(Enter name of X’s mascot)! That set the tone. We were going to hear a great deal about athletics on this tour.

The first stop on the tour was a large open grassy area. Here we were told about what would happen during the opening week of the term during an extended welcome orientation, and in particular, how a “student activities fair” would take place in this very area, under a large tent, where students could choose from over 400 clubs and organizations to get involved with. The objective of all of this we were told was to have “fun” and to get “involved.” We were told that in a national survey X ranked very high because over 90% of its students reported that they were “happy” at X. I was pleased to know that the taxpayers of this state were making such an investment to produce “happy” students.

Throughout the two-hour tour the only references made to the purposes of the institution were to: having fun, being happy, and eventually getting a good job. Considering this was a place I thought was especially noted for its STEM work, I found this scripted presentation of the purposes of the University to be particularly puzzling. To reinforce my cognitive dissonance, our tour guide repeated on multiple occasions that she had changed her major (to Communications) in her first year because of her challenges with Chemistry. As she put it “I don’t do anything with numbers.” She apparently was in the right place to go through college that way, even though I found that hard to understand.

Totally missing from the tour were any references to any other possible purposes of higher education, such as preparing for a life of leadership, civic responsibility, service to society, support of the arts, you name it. In fact, with reference to public performances in the arts space, the closest we heard was reference to great rock concerts that were brought to campus.

And next came a residence hall. We heard a great deal about on campus living options and food choices. The virtues of food options were extolled as was “free laundry” meaning no charge to students for use of the laundry machines. That was described as a big hit. It was explained to us that the one area of campus life that had not been rated high historically was the food service and thus, how that had been a focus for special attention for improvement in the past two years. Universities have all sorts of distinctions and I would assume on such tours would tout what they are proudest of. In this case, X is now proud of the food it provides its students.

We also heard about another student concern: parking, and how much more available and less expensive it would be than at many competitors.

We moved on to the Student Activities Center where it was explained to us in more detail what were the opportunities for students to engage in organized group activities. This building was separate from the student union building which we were not shown.

We were also not taken to any classroom or research laboratory facilities. I found that strange given that this is a world-class research university. There was no information offered on any types of research being conducted at this university or what the purposes of a research university are. The only references to academic requirements were to final exams, but in the context that the University food service provided what in the military I came to know as “midnight chow” served up late at night before finals the next day.

We were not taken to any facility where artistic performances of any type would be presented other than the movie theater in the student activities center.

We also did not see the football stadium although we heard many references to it and how we should all look forward to game Saturdays.

Nor did we tour the physical recreational activities building, although that was pointed out to us. In so doing the guide exclaimed that X was really a place for “jocks.” I did not ask her if she understood the male related aspects of that language which she was using generically.

Very late in the tour we got to the Library. We were only shown the foyer. But we were told that the library housed a student success center “upstairs” where students could receive free tutoring.

At another point there was reference to a health center, but none to the availability of counseling, or the fact that the college experience might lead some students to seek counseling.

While there were multiple acknowledgements that students were coming to university to get jobs, strangely, we were never shown the career center. I am sure both students and families would have liked more attention to that, actually, any attention to that.

At some point on the tour, I had this recollection of an experience I hadn’t thought about in years, a pitch for a timeshare. It was probably about 30 years ago and I was over at the blue collar Riviera of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, literally on the beach. And I don’t know what possessed me, but I agreed to attend a pitch for a timeshare—probably for ten beach dollars or something. As I recalled this otherwise forgettable experience I realized the similarities to this college admissions visit and tour. I was really being pitched a vacation experience, fun, recreation, generous and good food, plenty of entertainment, all in a safe environment, even free laundry thrown in. And not inexpensively—all for about what I could purchase a timeshare. Not only was what was being sold similar to the timeshare, so were the strategies being used in the pitch. This was truly déjà vu.

Of course, I know that those responsible at X for enrollment management are not trying to sell a timeshare. But assuming that what is said on these tours is not left to serendipity, and hence is carefully scripted, I had to wonder what was the rationale for what was covered/not covered. And without asking those responsible, all I could conclude was that this was the outcome of an exercise using Maslow’s needs hierarchy into an operational process. So what we got was information on very basic shelter and security needs but nothing much higher up on the aspirational ladder towards self actualization—-unless we accept the proposition that these prospective students had no loftier aspirations than to spend four or five years in a resort as a way station before true adulthood. No, I don’t think so. These students are high performing high school students. I believe they came in not knowing quite what to expect, but still expecting more than they got. I don’t believe they are really aspiring to an extended resort stay.

So how does your place stack up in comparison? What is the pitch being given prospective students? What is/is not on the campus tour? Who writes the tour guides’ script? Who trains and supervises them? What are the criteria for their selection? What is the story being told about your institution? Who is in charge of the front door to your institution? You need to know.

I must admit that for the three decades I was at the University of South Carolina I never went on the tour. I never heard the pitch. But I have now done so and am pleased to report it bears little similarity to X. I should have done this while I was employed full-time and had responsibility for first-year students. I knew very well what we were telling the students during Orientation but knew anything about the messaging that had preceded that. Shame on me.

Ode to a Retiring Colleague

John N. Gardner


For all of us who have been public service employees, the date June 30 has multiple significances: the end of the state government fiscal year, and the most preferred date for state and local government retirees to retire.

I took “early” retirement June 30, 1999 and have been flunking retirement ever since. My wife, Betsy Barefoot, and I established a not-for-profit higher education firm, the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education immediately after we left South Carolina. One of the triggers for my own move was my disillusionment over the decision to place the Confederate flag at the foot of the steps to the statehouse.

Since my own date for transition I have gone back down to South Carolina for an occasional retirement celebration for a special colleague, this year being a case in point. My colleague of 37 years, Stuart Hunter, “retired.”

Stuart was my successor at the University of South Carolina who was responsible for the University 101 programs and the National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition. These initiatives have flourished since my departure, and not necessarily because of it! Rather, I prefer to think that the success of these pillars of support for the US “student success” movement is due instead to a number of factors: 1) Stuart’s outstanding leadership; 2) the extraordinary support (especially during and in spite of the Great Recession) of the University’s highest level(s) of administration; and 3) the continuing participation of thousands of USC students and in like manner, thousands of higher educators around the globe.

Stuart leaves behind the administration of the multiple courses and their faculty/staff/peer leader development programs, including University 101, 201, 401 in the very able hands of Dr. Dan Friedman. And in like manner, an equally but differently capable Dr. Jennifer Keup, will carry forward the leadership of the National Resource Center.

Although she was not influenced by me in the slightest regard in this manner, Stuart also will not be totally retiring. She will be on campus several days a week very involved in the academic credit bearing work of the organization and other special projects for the University. I am so grateful to my University for not letting this wonderful corporate memory and contributor fade away. Stuart will join me as a Senior Fellow and, as I have explained to her in all seriousness, this title is not meant to be a reference to our age, rather our wisdom.

It occurs to me of course that Stuart and I are becoming less common in the ranks for American higher education professional leaders in that we elected to spend the entirety of our careers at one institution. Neither of us have any regrets about that. Both of us left the place in a little bit better shape than we found it, for our having being there. Both of us met our spouses there and raised our children with the University being part of their lives.

As I reflected at Stuart’s retirement reception, the University was founded in 1801 and the first students arrived in 1805. The oldest part of the campus is found inside what is known as “the shoe” or “horseshoe, a wall built in 1821 to keep the all male student body inside to prevent themselves from killing each other in the code of dueling practiced after drinking in nearby taverns. As we walk in that sacred place we always are in touch with the eternity of the place. Both of us were always conscious that the University had been there before us and would be there after us. We had one overriding goal: to leave a legacy by making the institution even more student focused and successful for those students. I realize that even though many of our peers will not dedicate an entire professional life to one institution, that nevertheless, no matter how long they stay, they can do the same thing we did: contribute to leaving the place better than they found it.

When I was an impressionable child, my father said to me repeatedly: “Son, find a good company and stick with it.” I did that. So glad I did. Stuart did too. I’m so glad she did.

New Frontier for the First-Year Seminar

John N. Gardner

As many of my readers will know, there are multiple terms used to describe a near universal course in US higher education designed to improve the success of beginning college students. The correct academic nomenclature for this unique course genre, which has been around since 1882, is “first-year seminar.”

But many campuses have adopted terminology originally developed by publishers of college textbooks for these courses: “college success” courses and/or “student success” courses. And there are many institution specific names for these courses such as my own University 101 course at the University of South Carolina.

These courses were designed for beginning college students. And while I have had a number of anecdotal reports over the past quarter century of the course concept being adapted to the high school setting, I had never observed any such activity at scale. One version of a secondary school offering would be for ninth graders as they transition into high school, not college. The other versions would be the archetypal college success course offered for high school students at their high schools, or on a college campus, or on line.

However, I recently had the opportunity to visit San Jacinto Community College in Houston, where to my astonishment they are offering their college success course for ALL high school dual credit students. So we are not talking here about a few sections for a boutique program for a special population of fast tracking high school students. This is an institutionalized, College-wide effort, for all new matriculated students, all dual credit students, all students in their Early Colleges. And these students do this either as their first course of dual credit or in the first term if they are at the college level.

This is a tribute to the success this course has had over the past decade of promoting greater levels of subsequent success for students who complete the course when compared with students who did not participate in the course. This level of success outcomes led the College to decide to make this course mandatory.

There is a bigger picture here, of course, and that is the question of when should “college” begin? These educators are realizing that to wait until students are actually in college may be too late for some and not as effective for others if they had started earlier in the pipeline.

So what should we be calling these courses for students who are still technically in high school? In what ways should we be adjusting the content?
What kind of professional development should we be providing for the instructors? Is there content in some college success courses that would not be appropriate for high school students? What will be the implications of students who take this course before actually entering a college or university? Will they be shortchanged in any ways by not having the more conventional “college” success course? Time—and assessment—will tell. But we really do need to push ahead and learn what are the outcomes.

Because the first-year seminar is a highly imitative concept, this model will surely be imitated. I will be watching—and supporting—that with great interest. Kudos to San Jacinto Community College.

Two Great Universities Reputations Badly Tarnished: Is There A Common Theme?

December 4, 2014John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

Over the Thanksgiving holidays I hope you have had more positive things to consider. But for some of my holiday thinking time I couldn’t help but reflecting on the intersection, ostensibly coincidental, of the troubles of two great US public, flagship universities: the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. Of course, these are not only two of the greatest universities in the US, but the world.

One of them is very close to me geographically speaking as a resident of North Carolina—about five hours east of me and its recent troubles are yielding lots of unfavorable local press. I refer to the discovery that more than 3000 students, many of them athletes, had received academic credit for bogus courses, which were really sham courses for which the students did no academic work. The awareness of these ghost courses was known within the University for years but no actions were taken to curtail the practices.

And then much more recently a story in Rolling Stone reported on a gang rape of a female student in 2012 by a group of fraternity affiliated males in their “house” at the University of Virginia. If ever there was a case of a house not being a home, this is it. As the story has unfolded the University has acknowledged that it has no history of dispensing expulsion as a penalty for perpetrators of sexual assault; and that it appears that the University has taken a stronger stance against violators of the University’s famous honor code regarding academic integrity than it has for male students who sexually assault female students.

There is already a great deal of commentary on these two situations. What can I add to this? What would I be asking my students to consider as they strive to understand how this could be happening in two such venerable institutions?

In both there are the themes of the excesses of a male dominated higher education culture and the tolerance for behaviors that violate codes of conduct that apply to others than male social organization members or male athletes. Both reflect the traditional values system of the residential, traditional aged undergraduate student American university. Both illustrate the power of organizations created and adored by males: the football, basketball, fraternity culture. At one university we see the corrupting force of the need to maintain athletic eligibility debasing the academic standards of an entire academic department, the related academic advising system, co-dependent staff in the Athletics department, and even spreading to students who were not varsity athletes. In the other we see the naked (pun intended) power of a highly privileged male group whose traditional rituals for subordinating women were part of a culture that had become, in effect, untouchable, due to its powerful backers in the University’s larger adult community of supporters.

I suspect that few of us higher educators with any intimate familiarity of the residential university culture are surprised in the slightest by these revelations. But in my case, I was a faculty advisor to a social fraternity at the University of South Carolina for sixteen years. Now my boys were not angels but I never had reason to believe they engaged in such practices. I cannot say the same for the relationship between the Athletic Department and some of our “academic” practices. What surprises me though is our continuing tolerance for these egregious violations of our ostensible values. What has made us so tolerant? So willing to look the other way? So inclined to overlook these violations of our most important values.

Will these incidents lead to substantive change? Perhaps at these two institutions. I saw at my own institution how sensational public scandal could and did change a wide range of institutional practices. But these incidents go way beyond these two great universities.

I have concluded that what we need is significant Federal intervention to secure the physical protection of vulnerable students whose safety we have not adequately protected. I see this as a matter of basic civil rights and look to the Federal government as the protector of last resort. While relatively few students are in danger of group sanctioned sexual assault, far more students are in academic environments where federal financial aid monies support a system of whereby students are not held to the same academic standards as a function of athlete versus non athlete status. This was clearly not Congressional intent when the federal financial aid system was established and I am hopeful that we will be held accountable for making our standards apply equally to all. Yes, that’s right: I want to call in the Feds and the regional accreditors. I don’t see ourselves getting our house in order on our own. Just as in the 16 years between Brown vs Board of Education from 1954-1970 we have been pursuing a philosophy of gradualism. And it hasn’t been sufficient.

So what is your commentary to your students going to sound like?

It’s All about Meaningful Work

November 24, 2014John N. GardnerInsights1

John N. Gardner

I have very few original ideas.  One was “the first-year experience.” Another was “the senior year experience.” The list is short. Most of my ideas I get from other people. And I get these ideas usually by two means: I listen to them in conversation or presentations; and/or I read them.

So this piece is inspired by the fact that the other night I was at a conference related dinner in Arlington, Virginia, engaged in a conversation with one of my colleagues at the University of South Carolina, whom I respect greatly, the University’s chief undergraduate education officer, Dr. Helen Doerpinghaus. After we finished our conversation I noted to myself that she had mentioned to me not once, not twice, but three times, the importance to her as a faculty member and academic administrator most responsible for the welfare of our undergraduates, of “meaningful work.” I didn’t tell her at that time that I had been doing a word count, but I did later. She really nailed it.

When I think of what I am most thankful for, “meaningful work” is right up there at the top of the list.

I am a seeker of truth, my truth. I learned how to do this in college when I had a political scientist in a political philosophy course teach me the Socratic method. It is that method that I use most often to seek my truth(s). I was taught, by having to read Plato’s Republic, that Socrates went about speaking in the interrogative mode with others, drawing from them presentations of what others believed to be the truth—their truths. And I saw Socrates adding up these truths of others to create his own synthesis of truth, and thus inspiring me to do the same.

And that is what I was naturally doing in conversation with my USC colleague who was talking to me about the importance of academics like us doing “meaningful work.”

When I was 18 years old and came home from my first year of college, my father was not happy with the new ideas, views, attitudes, I had come home from college with. He told me I needed to have a real world experience, implying to me what so many business types believe, that college is not “the real world.” So he arranged such an experience for me: I became a steel worker in a plant that made beer cans. This was sheer torture for a college kid. Millions and millions of beer cans but not a drop to drink.

This experience didn’t illuminate for me what I wanted to do when I grew up, but it helped clarify what I didn’t want to do. I saw how bereft of meaning was the work that most of my fellow factory workers were doing. And at the end of the summer, all I knew was that I was still very much in search of “meaningful work.” I didn’t call it that yet. And actually, I was in the process of finding it in college, where I truly regarded my work as “meaningful”—because it led to so much understanding, insight, and intellectual and personal empowerment. It was also in college that I learned from reading Thoreau, writing in the 1840’s, that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Of course I was also gradually coming to the awareness that millions of my fellow citizens do not have the good fortune to experience “meaningful work.” Instead, they have jobs. Ultimately, I did not have a “job”; I had a vocation, a “calling” as the Latin derivative of vocation yields.

Now I didn’t discover this calling until after college and a graduate degree and a military experience, when the Air Force ordered me to do some college adjunct teaching as a form of “community service.” It was only then that I discovered my operational definition of “meaningful work”: it was being engaged in remunerative work that had redeeming social value and that involved the four things I loved most to do: 1) talk 2) read 3) write 4) help people. I did not have any career planning in college because it didn’t exist in the early ‘60’s in my kind of college. I am thankful to the Air Force and the University of South Carolina that I discovered “meaningful work.”

I am struck today by how many college students have never experienced “meaningful work.” In fact, my upper SES background students may never have experienced any remunerative work at all! They don’t have paper routes any more. And they don’t mow lawns either. Instead they have after school and during the summer “enrichment” experiences that help them leverage the college admissions game. And for my lower income students, the fortunate ones have had some employment history but I rarely ever hear that it was meaningful (e.g. in the fast food service economy).

I shared with my USC colleague, Dr. Doerpinghaus, that I thought that higher educators could profit from being convened to discuss what is meant by meaningful work, and just what that experience for them in the academy has been. And how those kinds of experiences might relate to efforts to make students more successful. In like manner, I suggested that we try to design some structured processes for undergraduates to learn how to discern what might constitute meaningful work. I am confident USC will figure out a way to do this. Just think, if they left college with any more clear indication of what “meaningful work” consisted of, how much better their life choices might be.

So what is meaningful work?

What I know best is what I found to be the characteristics of meaningful work through my own meaningful work. Now that doesn’t mean that my students would have to end up doing what I did and do to experience meaningful work. I am not a faculty person who wants to produce student clones. But surely there are some generic take-aways.

OK, for me, meaningful work is characterized by:

  • a discovery of some idea that becomes the basis for new work
  • a high degree of autonomy and freedom in the work setting
  • the intellectual, professional, personal freedom to raise questions about anything and pursue them wherever they lead me
  • having remunerative work that pays me for doing the things I most love to do (reading, writing, talking, helping people)
  • having legal work that harms no one, including myself, and helps many
  • high levels of personal fulfillment and empowerment
  • freedom to determine where I work
  • and when I work
  • and how I work
  • and with whom I work
  • being engaged primarily in activities that I have initiated as opposed to having imposed on me, or as my good friend and mentor at the University of California Irvine put it to me thirty years ago—work that enables John to “stay out of other peoples’ meetings!”
  • forms of work that require me to continue learning
  • outcomes that are win/win for myself and others—it is never about just me
  • and thus work that is inherently collaborative, that would be very difficult to engage in alone
  • and further is work where my skills, knowledge, hopes, dreams are complemented and magnified through integration with those same qualities in others
  • often fun and entertaining
  • always demanding, pushing me further
  • never finished, yet fulfilled

I think there needs to be more talk among academic colleagues and work with our students to help all discover and achieve meaningful work. And this is one more benefit to college in addition to simply “completion” and degree attainment.

Thank you Helen, for getting me to think about this. And I will continue to do so.

Irrational Love…Or is It Rational?

November 19, 2014John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

A few weeks ago I visited my alma mater, Marietta College, on a professional trip in association with a project I am working on with faculty, staff and administrators there. There is no way I can fully describe how much I love that place, that institution and the people I knew there—most of them now gone. If more students felt the way I do in that regard, we would have much less of a retention problem.

Generally, I regard love as an irrational phenomenon. But my alma mater did so much to develop me, support me, nourish me, care for me, focus me, that it almost seems rational that I love the place. If not “rational” well certainly “understandable”, “appropriate.”

By the time I had been to college, graduate school and then in the military, I had come to realize experientially that as a human being, I could be taught to think, feel, and do anything, including hate, kill, and/or love.

Then I came to work for the University of South Carolina. We had this President with this heretical idea that we could teach the students to “love” the University. And if they came to love it they wouldn’t want to trash it and there would be no more student riots like the one that had barricaded him in his office and set his building on fire in May of 1970. So he and a group including myself, started a course, University 101, to teach students to love the University. And 43 years later there have been no more riots. And many of the students really do love the University.

So four decades later, most institutions are doing much more to intentionally teach their incoming students a wide variety of skills, knowledge, attitudes, about making a successful transition into college. A few places I think are actually trying to teach the students to love the institution, its people and opportunities. I know that is still the case at USC. The big question is how might we do this.

Well, for starters, we could identify everything that successful college students do and we could set out to teach students how to do those things.

And we could put all that content and process into a credit bearing course.

And we could introduce new students to faculty, staff, and fellow students who love the institution. And get new students to spend quality and quantity time with such people, each week, as in three contact hours in class at the very least.

And we could get new students engaged in experiences out of class that they would enjoy and which would model enthusiasm for the college experience (attending events, plays, concerts, activities).

And we could make sure that they had professionals to interact with that cared about them, listened to them, encouraged them, and in a few special cases even came to love them.

Yes, I think this is what we need to be doing: teaching new students to love the institution, to love being there, experiencing the transformation that can take place in such a unique environment.

So why do I love my alma mater?

Well, for one thing, it is in a beautiful setting, in the bucolic (I would like to think overlooking some downsides) Appalachian region of southern Ohio. It sits at the confluence of two beautiful rivers: the Ohio and the Muskingum. The small host town of Marietta, has 15,000 or so citizens and is steeped rich in history, the first permanent settlement in the Northwest Territory, created by act of Congress in 1787. Its streets are made from brick pavers. In the fall it is particularly beautiful and evocative of the powerful feelings I had when I first began there, as a lonely, depressed, homesick, undecided, seventeen year old college student.

So why do I love my alma mater?

Because that is where I discovered that I had a set of competencies that would carry me through life.

That is where I learned to work with peers in groups and came to appreciate them and enjoy professional work.

That is where I came to understand how higher education institutions really work, which has been the focus of my life’s work.

That is where I came to understand so much more about how the world works; how I can think like a liberal arts person and integrate many bodies of knowledge.

That is where I developed a number of special relationships, overwhelmingly with men,  that have endured through now almost five decades of adulthood.

That is where I learned to overcome my acquired sexist thinking and experience my opposite gender as full human beings just like myself.

That is where I developed my adult work habits.

That is where I experienced the powerful interconnection of a healthy mind and a healthy body by realizing the benefits of rigorous, disciplined, regular, outdoor, physical exercise.

That is where I overcame many of my prejudices learned at home.

That is where I developed my own aspirations rather than those my parents had for me.

That is where I learned that the questions are often more important than the answers.

That is where I learned my lifetime value systems about politics, religion, social justice and so much more.

That is where I became intellectually liberated.

That is where I first saw that I could have an impact on a human organization through my own unique vision, energy, interpersonal and communication skills.

That is where I learned—or began to learn, about how to go about effecting change in the higher education environment.

That is where I experienced what first-year college students, and seniors, needed for successful transitions.

So especially when I return to this hallowed place I am reminded how much I love this institution and for what it stands. It would be irrational for me not to love this college.

This love is powerful.

It is mystical.

It is magical.

It is beyond complete definition or understanding.

It is to be experienced, felt, lived, and acted upon.

I persisted, was retained, in spite of a terrible first term, because I came to love the place and what it was doing for me, its people, its place, its transformative power.

Your students can experience this love too. But you have to be an agent for that.

Veterans’ Day 2014: What Brings Us All Together?

November 12, 2014John N. GardnerInsights1

Veterans’ Day is a day I look forward to each year. It makes me feel one with others like no other ritual I participate in. And it makes me wonder what activities could really bind our students together and cut across all the divisions of red and blue state America that they bring to campus with them.

This year’s Veterans’ Day was picture perfect in my little mountain town in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. It was warm, pushing 70. There was not a cloud in the sky. A remembrance ceremony is held this day in front of the courthouse in Brevard, a town of 6000. I estimate that maybe two hundred people turn out, at least five percent of them who are politicians there to take advantage of the podium to pander to voters, largely Veterans like me. This political ritual disgusts me, but it is as American as apple pie.

I stood with a line of sight with the dais and courthouse on my right, the honor guard to the center in front of the memorial for the dead, and the flag, and to my left the face of beautiful Bracken Mountain, where I run some days, about five minutes from my office.

And I know that I am also standing with fellow citizens in front of their courthouses all over our country at this very same hour. I love that feeling. I give in to it and let it take me away, mentally.

I was of similar age to the majority of the Veterans present. The majority of us had to have served in the 60’s or early 70’s or before. Between us and the traditional age college students of today, there is a huge age and generation gap. Our students are not compelled to perform any kind of national service and relatively very few do so voluntarily. When I occasionally give commencement speeches I always ask the graduates to raise their hands if they are going to serve our country. And very few do. I have even had audiences where not one hand goes up. So I tell them that we expect all college graduates to serve our country.

But I was not similar to most of my fellow Veterans today, I assume, in terms of educational attainment level, socio-economic status, occupation, religious and/or political affiliation. None of this makes me any better—or worse—just different.

But I am like them in that all of us had this one life changing experience in common.

All of us served a greater good, the common welfare.

All of us took the same oath.

All of us gave up our personal freedom to do as we pleased. I learned that I could still think as I pleased but at times even that was an effort.

All of us were under the total control of our government and were ordered to go and serve somewhere. And usually it wasn’t in a location of first choice on what we called our “dream sheets.”

All of us had a mission. And we knew that mission. I had never before thought about having a mission. I sure think about it now, every day.

And we were proud of it.

All of us knew there was something that mattered more than our preferences and individual lives.

All of us were connected, bonded.

All of us were able in this one respect to transcend all the other differences that we had experienced in civilian life.

All of us had responsibility for the welfare of others.

All of us had responsibility for taxpayers’ property.

All of us ended up doing things we never dreamed we would do, including in my case, becoming a college professor, as ordered by the Air Force.

I was a military psychiatric social worker. Previously in college, I had no idea this was something I was preparing to do.

I know I helped many of my patients. The last I saw any of them was 46 years ago. But I remember many of them vividly.

Their names.

Their stories.

Their suffering.

In my memories I will carry them to my grave.

So what do our college students all have in common with each other: professors, tests, registration, parking, the food service….? What really bonds them together, transforms them, gives them a sense of purpose and mission? Is it mingling with other football fans, cheering, drinking, and celebrating? Is it attending the hottest rock concert in years? Will the performers be anyone they will remember for even a year? Is it a spring break trip? Is it the accumulation of a staggering student loan debt? Is there any sense of shared loyalty, affinity, duty to anyone other than themselves?

If we were to attempt to have our students all address a common good or cause, just what could that be? And how would we go about that? And would they take us seriously?

I wish politicians would run on a platform to bring back conscription.

In the meantime, I would settle for mandatory service learning and/or community service as a graduation requirement. But at most institutions, I won’t even get that.

Finding the Money

November 10, 2014John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

All my readers surely have heard the maxim: follow the money. It is an investigative path that always leads to the answer to the question: what’s really going on here?

I can’t possibly recount how many times I have heard over my career the explanation for why some course of action is not possible couched in the following language options: “We can’t afford it.” “The institution doesn’t have the resources.” “We could never get the money for that.”

At the same time as I am hearing that refrain I am hearing at the same time the action steps the same institution is taking. But those actions are often not in the same directions, for the same purposes, as those proposed by the people saying the place has no money. A recent case in point is an institution where there the explanation for not being able to take certain actions on behalf of first-year students is “insufficient resources.” But this same institution, at this same time, is starting a medical school. And most of my readers have some idea of what kind of resources adding a medical school would take.

So I concluded a long time ago about this matter of insufficient resources, that colleges and universities almost always have the money to do what they want to do. The question instead then becomes: what do they most want to do? Also critical, of course, is who is the “they”?

Decisions about what do you most want to do, ultimately comes down to values, beliefs, that in turn drive the allocation of resources.

And for most of us, there are finite resources. So of course, the institution can’t do everything that all its members and units might want it to do.

I have been saying for decades with reference to my own crusade for student success, that the resources available for this priority are directly related to the perceived value of this as an objective. To provide more support for students in need is a values based proposition. In fact, this is exactly the values struggle that is playing out right now in the US mid-term Congressional elections. And we can’t assume that the decision makers automatically understand why this effort to enhnce student success should be part of their value proposition. Some persons have to make the case—over and over again. For decades. That’s been my life’s work.

Thus, advocating for resources for student success initiatives ultimately comes down to focusing on the core values that underlie this as an institutional priority. For institutions always find the resources for what they value the most. This means that you cannot take for granted that decision makers automatically understand or agree with the notion that more attention, and therefore resources, should be directed to student success initiatives.

Therefore, I have been using language like: “The First-Year Matters” or “Why is the First Year Important?” This is the language of values based advocacy.

When I see what a college or university spends money on I know what it values. And then I know where I stand, or don’t. But this is not a given. The values of leaders are not immutable. They can be changed. They can be educated. They can be moved. They have to be persuaded to want to do something. For institutions always do what they most want to do.

What does your college or university most want to do?

Fall: A Good Season for Benchmarking and Transforming

November 5, 2014John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

One of the aspects of the fall season for an academic like me is that it is a time when I get to renew annually as I work with a new cohort of students (my students are now the colleges and universities I advise). I am never, of course, a tabula rasa, but the slate is cleaned somewhat.

And mid way through the fall is a time-tested tradition of “mid-terms” when students, especially new students, can ideally benchmark their performance. And this is a most common time for institutions reporting mid-term grades and for early warning systems to kick in for sure, if the institution has one at all. I would argue that initiating early warning interventions half way through the term is much too late, but still better than not at all.

I remember my first mid-term results in college very, very clearly. My grades were 3F’s, 2D’s and 1 A (the A was in physical education which was an automatic A because I was a varsity athlete!). This called for a conference with my academic advisor. He pronounced “Mr. Gardner, you are the stupidest kid I have ever advised.” After letting that description sink in I decided to get a new academic advisor. I give the new one part of the credit for my academic transformation and ultimate graduation from college.

Those first mid term grades were sent home to my parents. This was not a cause for celebration. And this was 13 years before the Buckley Amendment to the Privacy Act, which now prohibits such sharing of performance reports with parents unless the student has waived privacy rights.

So today we could be asking our students…..

  • to reflect on how they thought at the beginning of the term they would do?
  • and in contrast how are they actually doing?
  • what adjustments might be in order to improve performance?
  • how might they adjust time commitments and other priorities?
  • what kinds of assistance are available on campus and could they be seeking?
  • have they talked to the professor(s)?
  • have they talked to their academic advisor?
  • are they in a study group?
  • how are they going about learning study skills?
  • are they spending any time trying to learn from successful students?

Going through a self examination process like this could lead to transformative behavior. I began to improve after that mid term because a sophomore student serendipitously taught me to take lecture notes. I doubt I would ever have made it off probation and through college without this non- divine intervention.

The fall has always been a time of major transition(s) for me.

When I was nine years old my father moved our family to Canada in time to start the fall term in a Canadian school. That experience was transformative for me.

Five years later we returned to the US just in time for the fall term in a Connecticut high school. That was not transformative.

Three years later I started college in the fall. And that was truly transformative.

Four years later I started graduate school and that was not transformative.

One year later I joined the Air Force in October of 1966, and that was transformative…because the Air Force ordered me to become an adjunct faculty member for the University of South Carolina. And I discovered my life’s work.

Four years later after being honorably discharged, I launched my career at the University of South Carolina, Columbia. And that was transformative.

Twenty-nine years later I took early retirement from the University and moved to North Carolina, with Betsy Barefoot, on October 1; and that was transformative!

Eighteen days later we launched our non-profit organization; and that has been transformative for our work and for many of the institutions we have worked for and with.

I conclude from this history that the fall has been a period of transformation for me, and for many of my students.

What are you doing for your students this fall that they can ultimately describe as “transformative?”