John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Moving to Scale

October 22, 2014John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

One of the most frequent common state of affairs that I see on my many campus visits these days is the under developed state of so called “High Impact Practices” (HIPS—see ). I suspect my readers know what they are, all ten of them. They are not new at all; they are old wine in new bottles. And the new bottles are the increased credibility these undergraduate education initiatives have as being exemplars for student engagement, success, retention and more, thanks to my friend George Kuh’s extolling the virtues of these HIPS and the support they have received from AAC and U, the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Unfortunately, most of these are offered to a limited number of students and rarely to all students.  And hence we lament “if only we could bring them to scale.” I had never heard this phrase before some of my work was fortunate enough to receive support from foundations, beginning in 1999. Then I learned that foundation program officers and leaders were very, very interested, rightly so, in moving from “pilot” to “scale.”

So for example, even though we know have very substantial evidence that HIP’s like first-year seminars and learning communities, have demonstrable impact on retention, why haven’t they been brought to scale. For example, first-year seminars are required on only 50% of the campuses where they are offered, and that represents about 90% of the regionally accredited undergraduate degree granting institutions. And the first-year seminar is less likely to be offered in two-year colleges than in four-year institutions even though it could be argued that two-year institution students need such retention interventions more than their peers at baccalaureate institutions.

Two very important questions follow naturally:

1. So why haven’t we scaled up these interventions?

2. And how might we do so?

First, the why? I conjecture the following:

  • Not enough financial resources. Many institutions mount these efforts through grants like Title III. When the grant ends, so does support for the intervention. They don’t fund these initiatives on regular institutional recurring funds from tuition and/or state appropriated formula funding.
  • In an era of either no additional resources or reductions in resources, any scaling requires redistribution of existing resources—which means taking funds away from the programs of very powerful internal constituencies—particularly those with tenure who can vote no confidence on the administrators who cut their budgets.
  • Key resource allocators/decision makers don’t know enough yet about the value of such interventions and hence will not support moving to scale.
  • A disproportionate number of these initiatives may be run by women, non tenured, staff, Student Affairs, “Student Success” educators who do not have the power, status, to advance their agendas
  • On any given campus there may have been insufficient assessment done on the outcomes of these less than scaled interventions. With no compelling evidence of effectiveness it’s understandably hard to make the case for scaling.
  • Competing voices at the table. Some advocate for ramping up this intervention rather than that intervention. So we have competition and in-fighting for a shrinking pie.
  • Lack of a master plan, a comprehensive vision of what is needed to improve student success. I have personally been involved since 2003 with a self-study, planning process to help create such a vision, Foundations of Excellence ® (see ). But we have done this with “only” 264 institutions out of 4000+ in our country. And at those places we do frequently see the outcome of scaling up.
  • Lack of consensus about what really matters for new and transfer students for student success. Because institutions always find the money for what really matters, and if it hasn’t been decided that this really matters, then these initiatives cannot be brought to scale.
  • Many of the decision makes did not experience one of these HIP’s when they were a student and hence may not agree that these are essential elements of an effective undergraduate experience.

And I suspect there are other reasons too. But the above are certainly sufficient to prevent the badly needed scaling up of successful student success initiatives.

And now some suggestions for the how?

One mistake many places make is trying to do too many initiatives at once. I suggest more concentration, more focus. This is sometimes difficult to do because senior resource allocators want to love all their direct reports (children) equally. And so they water down the resources where all the units get something and nobody gets very much to do anything of real substance. Not smart. The most effective initiatives I have seen came about at places where senior decision makers decided to make some program or initiative and signature one and really invested in that to bring it to scale. So the senior leaders have to have priorities and the courage to announce them, drive them, fund them.

Thus, you need to make intentional choices and announce publicly your signature initiatives and then do what you said you were going to do. At my own university, our historic signature initiative was University 101. It has taken us 43 years of focus, emphasis, refinement, making the effort a high priority institutional commitment.

Ramp up assessment of your HIP’s and scale based on what you find.

Make sure you have the kinds of HIP leaders in place, whom their senior leaders and other members of the campus community will be willing to support. It’s very hard to scale any initiative that does not have highly respected leadership.

Demonstrate how a given HIP will also benefit other units whose leaders then will get behind the particular HIP. For example, when academic department chairs see the kind of value added they can derive from a first-year seminar which retains more students for their majors, they are more likely to support its scaling.

Much wiser to argue that ALL students will benefit from the initiative you want to scale than just a sub population, no matter how worthy, deserving, needy that sub population. Hey, this is post affirmative action America. There will never be enough resources for the neediest. So what you have to do is argue what is needed for ALL students—e.g. effective academic advising integrated with career planning.

Consider doing a pilot. Use the cream of faculty and staff to launch. Assess the results and disseminate those. Scale the innovation. Continue to assess and improve. This is what we did with University 101.

Don’t try to scale your HIP on your own. Attract partners who will bring more resources: people, money, and political capital. For example, you scale learning communities by offering them in residence halls (assuming you have them). This brings together the combined resources and efforts of faculty, academic and student affairs. Partnerships are a key to scaling.

Publish about your innovation. In the academy, publishing is the currency of the realm. When others outside your institution are reading about what you are doing, the internal credibility of your intervention will increase and be perceived as more deserving of scale.

Look at what your aspirational peer institutions are doing. If they are ramping up you should too. My wife, Betsy Barefoot, visited the world class  University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill last February for a focus on their High Impact Practices. She learned that Chapel Hill has the goal of every undergraduate student participating in at least one High Impact Practice per year.

Look at your actual peer institutions. If they are doing whatever you are espousing, this certainly justifies your place doing it.

Use the leverage of your regional accreditor’s required quality improvement/assessment processes as the means to achieve your end of scaling up your initiative. I have seen, for example, a significant number of institutions in the SACS region focus their QEP’s (Quality Enhancement Plans) on the first-year seminar. Once that HIP becomes the focus of reaffirmation of accreditation, then that initiative will have moved to the signature initiative level and will definitely be scaled up.

I am sure there are many other ways to scale up. I am encouraged to see many institutions finding the way. If they can, so can you.

What’s in a Ceremony?

October 20, 2014John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

Colleges and Universities need to pay more attention to their ceremonies and to get them right.  Ceremonies matter:

  • Ceremonies move people.
  • They entertain them.
  • They bind them together.
  • They remind and focus them on what really matters.
  • They confirm the values of the institution.
  • They give people hope.
  • They remind people of their past and they point to the future.
  • They are aspirational
  • They are inspirational
  • They leave people wanting more of the same
  • They are a metaphor for how the institution is run.

I am thinking about this as I write because I delivered a keynote address today at the inauguration of the fourth President of the Robert B. Miller College, in Battle Creek, Michigan, Dr. Evon Washington Walters. It was a big deal, a beautifully choreographed ritual.

As I really got into thinking about what I could possibly say to add to the meaning of this ceremony I realized that an inauguration is more than a ceremonial ritual that launches a new era of leadership. The medieval university knew what it was doing when it created this ritual. It is a ritual that binds the new leader to the city so that the two become inextricable. The fate of one is the fate of the other.

An inauguration is also a wedding of sorts. I have been thinking a lot more about the power of wedding rituals since my wife, Betsy Barefoot, and I performed our first wedding ceremony this spring for the son of our beloved accountant and his wife. When you preside at a ritual you really have to think through what you are trying to convey is the whole point of this powerful exercise.

An inauguration is a wedding because the new leader takes a vow to have and to hold his/her new partner, for better or worse—and the whole point of the ceremony is to create a self-fulfilling prophecy to augur in an era of the “better.” The leader is marrying his institution and its host community.

An inauguration is a wedding because the guests, we hope, will have the kind of experience after which they will bestow gifts needed by the institution.

And an inauguration is also a commencement. It is includes multiple homilies with dignitaries failing to resist the temptation to give the audience advice (myself included).

And an inauguration is a ritual where we tell the new leader to “go forth.”

And where we ask the whole community present to support this newly blessed union.

An inauguration is also a reunion, where friends, allies, supporters of and investors in the new leader convene to pay respect, to celebrate the accomplishment of the new leader upon her/his elevation to this leadership position. Thus, inaugurations should be joyous occasions, also like weddings.

And an inauguration is a commencement.

The institution gets to begin again, to renew, confirm, affirm its course.

The new leader gets to mark his/her passage to this new stage.

And the new leader gets advice from the commencement speaker just as the graduating students do at graduation.

And inaugurations are reunions for many of their participants just as are commencements.

The inauguration I participated in today was all of these elements. Nice job Robert B. Miller College.

This ceremony, of course, gets me thinking about how well we do ceremonies in our institutions, especially for the kinds of students I care about the most, and their families: the arriving students (first year and transfer) and departing students (graduating).

What ceremonies do you have for first-year students (hopefully in addition to unauthorized hazing rituals)?

  • Convocations? (Another medieval ritual)
  • Convenings for discussions of common/summer readings?
  • Processions, perhaps with candles, through or by sacred institutional structures (under arches, around special campus locations, etc)
  • Orientation’s special welcomes, activities, parties
  • Wilderness rites of passage (like Texas A and M Fish Camp)
  • First day of class rituals with the professor and syllabus—virtually none of them memorable
  • First day of practice for a team sport, marching band, ROTC
  • First “rush” meeting for Greek letter social organizations

Too bad we don’t do many or any of these for transfer students.

These ceremonies, rituals have been around for so long. Some may have outlived their usefulness. Some may need to be reinvented.

We (as individuals and as institutions) all need human rituals to bind us together in community. And if we don’t provide them intentionally for our new students they will create their own, and we may not like as well what they create.

I think we need to get better at ceremonies, especially for the majority of our students who don’t live on campus; who don’t attend sports activities, who don’t attend full-time; who don’t attend centuries old tradition bound institutions.

What are you doing? How well is it working?

How can you get your ceremonies right? The College I saw today got theirs right.

Silos: A Must for Farmers, a Negative for Campuses

October 15, 2014John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

It is almost inevitable that when I find myself in conversation with other higher educators about what are the major obstacles to student success on their campuses, the word “silo” comes up as a noun, or in verb form as “siloed.” And it is a lament. The refrain goes something like: “Oh we could get so much more done for our students if we weren’t so “siloed.” This blog posting is not going to be a treatise about what causes this organizational reality, but rather a much briefer statement about it including something I am trying to do about it.

Recently, I attended the national roll out event in Washington, DC, for the University Innovation Alliance, a national consortium of eleven research universities, which have received support from six foundations to work together to improve the success rates for underrepresented poor and minority students. How are they going to do this? Many approaches really, individually on each campus but collectively through one primary strategy: collaboration.

Ah, collaboration, so important, but so difficult to do. Many of us, especially our leaders, don’t do this naturally. We would rather compete. Competition is so American it’s next to godliness. So talking about serious collaboration is almost a heresy. We will see then how this plays out in what will be this well funded case study in cross institutional collaboration. Personally, I am impressed by this effort and am glad to see it taking place. And I hope I can help in some small ways to support this work.

Collaboration has been an essential theme of my work since the early 1970’s.  I would argue that everything I have accomplished of any significance I achieved through collaboration, and hence jointly, in a shared and not individual manner.

  • The University 101 program which I directed at the University of South Carolina for twenty-five years is the archetypal partnership program between central academic administration, Student Affairs, faculty and student leaders.
  • The Conferences on the First-Year Experience, and Students in Transition, for 35 years have been organized around bringing the constituencies of academic and student affairs administrators, and faculty from all types of institutions together for sharing of information and inspiration and collaborative activities.
  • The conference, strategic planning, and consulting work I have been engaged in has also been based on collaboration between American higher educators like myself and fellow higher educators from around the globe.
  • By far the majority of books, articles and other publications I have authored have been co-authored with others. I have a powerful preference for working with others as opposed to myself alone.
  •  The non-profit organization I helped found and which is named for me now fifteen years old offers multiple services and processes to improve undergraduate success through mechanisms involving partnerships and collaborations.

One of these activities is a continuation of two previous national meetings we have hosted into what will now be our third Academic and Student Affairs Leaders’ Institute: Partnerships for Promising Practices in Student Success, January 15-16, 2015, in Costa Mesa, CA. The two prior gatherings involved approximately 400 higher educators coming in teams from 100 institutions. The first meeting produced a manifesto of sorts on the nature of collaboration: Seven Principles of Good Practice for Student Success Partnerships.

I commend both the upcoming meeting and the Seven Principles for your consideration. We all need to do what we can to break down our respective campus silos to better serve our students, and in the course of that will find that we will better serve our own units and ourselves.

A New Profession?

John N. Gardner

I have been in my profession long enough to note new nomenclature and/or the arrival of new professions, new sub specialties. Higher education is becoming ever more complex and specialized so new types of specialized professionals are inevitable. In fact, as the creator of “the first-year experience” as a legitimate field of teaching, administration, student services, and research, I know a new concept when I see one. Or one that maybe is more like old wine in a new bottle.

I am thinking about the relatively rapid proliferation of a new cohort of higher education administrators who are designated as “student success” professionals. So who are these people?

What do they do?

How and why did they evolve?

To whom do they report?

What is the career preparation route into this profession?

Is this really a distinct professional category?

Are they really the same as “Student Affairs” professionals? And if they are, why give them this new designation? Or are they more focused on “academic” administration? But that would assume that Student Affairs administrators are not focused on academic matters? And I don’t agree with that.

Does the arrival of this new profession mean that now it is they who are charged with “student success” and those of us in academic administration, student affairs or faculty work are somehow less responsible, less on the hook?

Does the establishment of “student success” as a professional genre somehow mean that the academy decided that people like me who have been working to increase student success for decades somehow weren’t doing enough and that a new profession was called for? I would agree that we have not been doing enough.

Or is “student success” really a more palatable euphemism, a code phrase for those higher educators exclusively focused on “retention”?

OK, so we have a new term. But is the student success work substantively different from whatever we were doing before? Or is it, as I asked above, a repackaging and the putting of old wine in a new bottle?And how are we sorting out the organizational relationships on campuses where there are “student success” units, which are somehow differentiated from “student affairs” and “academic affairs” units?

And what are the levels within this new career ladder, student success—advisors, counselors, deans, directors, professionals, vice presidents?

And how are these roles playing out differently as a function of institutional types where they are found? This is a cross sector phenomenon.

If “student success” had existed when I was getting started in my career in higher education, I wonder if I would have been drawn to it? Upon reflection, I think I was. It just wasn’t called that. It was called “professor.”

And I wonder where all this is going? Some of my readers will help produce the answer to that question.

My October 1 Anniversary

John N. Gardner

This is a day I mark each year. We all have our life mile markers by which we benchmark the onward march of our lives and work. October 1, 1999 is the day I literally moved with Betsy Barefoot from our lives at the University of South Carolina to Brevard, North Carolina. Most people who knew me well thought I would never leave USC. And I didn’t think so either. Actually, I didn’t really “leave” as I have had the continuing privilege of an appointment there since my move, as a Senior Fellow in the University’s National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition. For this I am extremely thankful.

Betsy and I moved into a new home we had built on a mountain top in western North Carolina. We have a 360 degree view out about 25 miles or so looking at the escarpment of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Blue Ridge Parkway and Mount Pisgah, the highest point in our region at over 5000 feet above sea level. Betsy and I have 21 acres about 1000 feet above the valley below us, where lies the quaint county seat of Brevard and about 6000 people. It is quiet, peaceful, and unbelievably beautiful. We are the last residence on a dead end road at the highest point on the road.

So this October 1 is our fifteenth anniversary in Brevard. And it will be followed on October 18th by the 15th anniversary of the establishment of the non-profit organization, which we founded to focus on excellence in undergraduate education. We had no idea then that we were creating something that would continue and flourish for a decade and a half. And given the challenges that small, non-profit organizations have faced during the ravages of the Great Recession, that is no small feat.

Betsy and I were able to launch this new work thanks to the confidence in our ability to do new work that did not duplicate our former and continuing work for the University of South Carolina, confidence in us invested by the higher education program staff of The Pew Charitable Trusts, under the leadership then of our mentor Russ Edgerton.

I would have probably stayed at USC forever but the state had a policy that applied to all personnel except the sons of celebrity football coaches, a nepotism policy prohibiting in our case the marriage of two people, one of whom would have been in a supervisory capacity over the other. So, we left for love.

When I was in college, oh yes, I was aware of the concept of anniversaries and life’s mile markers. But I would never have predicted such anniversaries for myself. And this all became possible because I had attended college and benefited in so many ways from a college education that prepared me to work for a great university, to do the work I continue to do today, and with another individual I met in the same context. When I talk to undergraduates I occasionally point out the research findings on the outcomes of college. They are vast. And in my case they have given me an adult life that has yielded these anniversaries. I bet the same is true for many of my readers.

Something to Aspire To

September 22, 2014John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

I like to say to some folks about myself that “the jury is in on me.” By this I mean that it is now fully apparent what I have—as my father used to say “amounted to.” But that doesn’t mean I still can’t or shouldn’t have aspirational goals. We all should always nourish those.

And I was recently treated to an experience that suggested to me an aspirational goal, by attending a concert featuring the singer Tony Bennett and his forty year-old daughter, who were performing at the Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, MA.

My wife and I had heard Mr. Bennett approximately 10 years ago at the same venue. The thought had occurred to me then that that might be the last opportunity. Thank goodness it wasn’t. And when we heard him recently it was just 3 weeks after Mr. Bennett’s 88th birthday.

Out he came on the stage at not a walking pace but with a short jog like gait. And he was dressed in a palm beach off white jacket, white shirt, necktie, black dress slacks, belt, shirt tucked in, and black dress shoes. This could have been 1954 or 64 or 74 or 84. You get the point.

And all he had to do was to just be out there, doing his thing. My accountant regularly reminds me: “John, stick with what you know!” And Mr. Bennett was sticking with what he knew.

It was wonderful to see such a venerable performer still at or at least near the top of his game. Perhaps his voice didn’t quite have the full range of pitch it once did. I don’t know. I am not capable of judging that. I just know I enjoyed and was inspired by him.

The night before we had attended another concert at Tanglewood, performed by another male singer, less than half the age of Mr. Bennett, Josh Groban. He was not dressed in the manner of a mid twentieth century gentleman. I don’t know what a  21st century gentleman dresses like. And his shirt was not tucked in. And he boasted constantly about all his celebrity gigs, awards, etc. In contrast Mr. Bennett offered no hype, no self-promotion. He didn’t have to. All he had to be was who he has been, who he is. He just was. He just is.

As I sat there and started running the numbers, I compared his age to mine and what it would take for me to come out on a stage and deliver some kind of performance when I am 88. And this quickly became an aspirational goal. And it occurred to me that the 50th anniversary of the Annual National Conference on The First-Year Experience will be a fine such occasion for me to do just that. So I will see you there, I hope. I know I will be there.

The Power of Just One Educator

September 17, 2014John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

I learned so many important lessons in college. And one of them was the Socratic Method. I learned this when I was a junior, in a political philosophy course, the semester that President Kennedy was murdered. One of the many books we read that term was Plato’s Republic. This classic and the professor leading the course taught me this method. And I practice this method regularly.

It’s really pretty simple. When appropriate, you communicate with others in the interrogative mode. You are a seeker of truth, always. The truth is always under construction. You get at this by asking countless individuals what do they see as the truth of something. And in almost anything anyone gives you in such dialogue you can find at least a half-truth, a scintilla of meaning, value, evidence, insight. And then you add up all those collected half truths and you have created your own.

So I have just been on vacation in New England with my wife. And we spent a week at this place we love so much in Vermont, on Lake Champlain, just below the great college town of Burlington. And the Inn at Shelburne Farms has a large staff of recent college graduates who are servers.

One of them was recounting for me the impact of her “first-year experience.” I had asked her if she had taken any kind of introductory first-year seminar type course at the University of Vermont. She told me that she had. And much more than that. She was reflecting four years back on who taught that course, a male history professor, and the impact he had on her.

The course structure provided that the instructor of the seminar section would also serve as the advisor for the students enrolled in the section. This student described in good detail for me the focus of the seminar, what was for her an introduction into gender studies and how this discipline is illuminated by integration with the study of history. She told me she loved the course so much that she decided to major in history! And she also respected the advisor so much that she decided to retain him as her academic advisor for the balance of her undergraduate career. Now this is the kind of impact of the first-year experience that I would want for all students. And this is the kind of thing I can’t be reminded of too often.

She also told me that during her first year she was very concerned about the relationship between her choice of major and the even bigger questions of life after college, career, etc. She quoted her professor of the seminar as telling her: “Don’t worry about that now. Just do something in college that you love, and everything else will work out and fall into place.” Now some could quibble that that advice is overly simplistic and may not be valid –certainly not valid for all students. But that advice has really carried this student well.

My main take away from this serendipitous conversation was that here was my latest illustration of how much power (the ability to influence the decisions and actions of others) one higher educator can exercise over students, for better or worse. And it was also a reminder of the potential impact of engaging pedagogy in a first-year seminar; and of the power of the role of academic advisor.

I didn’t have such a course when I was a first-year student. And this was one reason why I almost flunked out. And my first advisor told me in a post mid-term conversation when he was reviewing my grades with me something very different from the message the former University of Vermont student described above received from her advisor. Mine told me: “Mr. Gardner, you are the stupidest student I have ever advised….!” I thought a minute and realized he meant it. What did I do with this message? I decided to get a new advisor, which I did. I went on and have had a career that has influenced hundreds of thousands of college students. And my former advisor went on to become a college president. His discipline, not incidentally, was communication, and he taught speech!

What are Your Roadmaps?

September 11, 2014John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

Recently, t’was the night before a vacation trip and after getting in bed I realized that I had forgotten to pack some maps of the region my wife and I were going to visit. I woke up the next morning and went promptly to the room where I had stored my maps for 15 years. Now I don’t save everything, mind you. But I am/was, a saver of maps. Maybe they had unconsciously taken on a significance for me that I was not aware of.

Anyway, I am an “everything in its proper place” kind of guy. So great was my surprise when my maps weren’t there. The “there” happened to be a storeroom that I share, like most everything else, with my wife and some of her things. The maps were gone. I immediately accosted my dear wife about the whereabouts of the maps. She, Betsy Barefoot, immediately replied that she had thrown them out! Upon further explanation, she explained that she had not realized that I had been putting MY maps in there, particularly those I had been recently acquiring, expensive, purchased, maps for touring in faraway places like New Zealand, France and Italy. Betsy duly apologized. But it has been the subject of much conversation between us for days following, mostly in the spirit of amusement and good nature. But it has really driven home how attached I am to maps!

Betsy’s initial reaction was one of surprise when she learned from me how attached I was to those maps. She even said to me: “John, that is so TWENTIETH CENTURY (emphasis mine) of you! Nobody uses maps any more. We have our phones.” Well, I have been begging to differ with her since. I still use maps. I love maps. I love to hold them in my lap and to pour over them with a magnifying glass, tracing routes with my fingers and then a highlighter pen. Why smart, pioneering, professionally courageous men like me, and women, have been using maps for centuries. Great discoveries have been made thanks to maps. This is a serious matter.

So now I have lost my maps. What am I going to do to replace them so I have direction for my most important of life’s journeys?

Let’s think of the “map” or “maps” or “roadmap” as a metaphor. Or we could convert it into an allegory. Surely, as educators we have all used these concepts with our children, our students, our peers, our mentors, our mentees. Most all of us can explicate our maps. And we work with the significant people in our lives to help them develop their maps. But maps are not static. They are constantly being redrawn.

And what happens to us when there is enormous cultural, political, economic, social change that leads to upheavals in our maps. Can we really totally lose our maps as I did when my wife inadvertently threw out my whole collection? When you lose your maps, how do you begin to replace them?

People are losing their maps all the time. The start of the school year is a great time to be thinking about this. Our new students come and many set aside the maps they came with. Others hold on to their home given maps even more tightly than ever. Many of us are working with our first-year students to help them develop new maps.

And, unquestionably, technology is replacing the ways we go about map making. I find myself constantly asking if these changes are for the better. Of course, there is no simple answer.

Three days after discovering the loss of my maps I crossed the state line from Massachusetts into Vermont by car. And the first thing I wanted to do was to stop in the state welcome center where I knew I could get a good map, multiple maps. And I could begin the process of replenishing my old maps, maybe some of which, my wife adds, were 25 years old!

I was privileged to live in Canada for five years during my childhood, from ages 9-14. Canadian school children such as I became mandatory students of world geography. I would never have done that in a typically ethnocentric American school. Why, we don’t need to study maps of anybody else! All that matters is ourselves. But I really did study maps in Canada. And I came to love maps. They made me think about where I might want to go during my own life and how my life could be different and what I could learn from these people who lived in these faraway places. I have to admit, I still think this way. I like the way I think. I like what maps have always done for me.

I am in good company with many higher educators I know. Our mental maps are being challenged and redrawn, especially by technology. And we are having to decide what to hang on to, what really matters, what to rethink, redraw, unlearn, relearn, plan in new ways. Being a twentieth century man and having to learn to be a twenty first century cartographer is hard work. I am fundamentally though a geographer of higher education and of institutions, students, faculty, and staff in transition, as we all look for new maps and decide which of our old maps we hang on to.

How are you coming with your maps? Can/should some of your maps be thrown away? Which ones are you consciously deciding to save and keep living in terms of?

A Preview of Coming Attractions

September 8, 2014John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

You are starting a new academic year. I am too. And I want to share what are going to be some of the priorities of my work, especially with the non-profit John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education in this coming year.

  • As the developer of the registered trademark and concept “The First-Year Experience” I am now being quoted as saying: “The REAL first-year experience is the gateway course experience.” So this fall we are launching our second national cohort for a national effort to improve student performance in high failure rate gateway courses. This is our process G2C ®, Gateways to Completion ®. The results from our first year of this process are most encouraging—that campuses will join such an effort and can actually conduct a rigorous self-study of their high failure rate courses and take steps to redesign them. As my colleague, and Executive Vice President, Drew Koch, is fond of saying, “We are not a technology firm but we have some sweet technology!” The G2C process includes a “sweet” data platform into which the institution uploads a wealth of data that it has never collected before regarding gateway courses. This data provides evidence for multiple decisions about course redesign. It also provides evidence that persuasively correlates performance in gateway courses by each course with retention rates of students who receive grades of D,W,F,I, in those selected courses. In the second year of the three year G2C process our new predictive analytics process kicks in providing dashboards for all institutions to monitor student progress in the aggregate for each targeted course, and an optional version of predictive analytics to follow and intervene with individual students. This work on improving gateway course performance is my true capstone work and probably the most important work of my career. Our application deadline for G2C is September 30. See:
  • We are launching in November of 2014 our newest service to increase student success: Retention Performance Management ™, RPM ™. This is the most time and cost efficient service we have ever offered. It is also the first form of support we will provide that will be priced as a function of enrollment size. This will mean that for small institutions under 3000 students their cost will be only $15,000. Our goal here has been especially to embrace smaller, private colleges but we are finding a significant number of larger and private institutions interested as well. RPM will provide a process to yield improvements within a relatively short time frame of six months. It will also feature our new “sweet” technology platform for data collection and analysis; and a new student retention survey, which will be the first survey we have ever offered directly from our organization. The application deadline for RPM is also September 30. See:
  • We will be offering our twelfth national/international cohort of Foundations of Excellence (FoE) ® since 2003. FoE is a voluntary, comprehensive, self-study and planning process, externally guided by our staff, that leads to an action plan that when implemented to a high degree has been found to correlate with significantly improved retention rates (8.2% in the aggregate for all institutional types). We have had 256  institutions from six countries participate previously. For this fall we have also introduced our “sweet new technology” to further enhance the power of this process. Our application deadline is October31. See:
  • We will be offering our third national Academic and Student Affairs Leaders’ Institute on Student Success, in the January-February 2015 window, location TBA in southern California. This will continue the promising work we have already done in two previous meetings in November 2012 and January 2014. The basic idea here is to bring together institutional teams to put them through a process that will enable them to produce a take home plan for a major partnership student success activity. We are very encouraged by the outcomes from more than 100 institutional teams that have experienced this process previously. Our first convening produced a major statement on how to pursue this work which is available gratis on our website: Seven Principles of Good Practice for Student Success Partnerships:
  • I am very pleased to announce that we will be hosting our third annual national and international Conference on the Gateway Course Experience. This will be held in Charlotte, N.C., April 12-14, 2015. See:  his is in keeping with the highest priority of our non-profit organization to be the world leader of a major effort to improve student performance, and this retention, in association with the impact of gateway courses.
  • And I am going to be atypically coy and cryptic in inviting my readers to follow my blog and our website for an announcement of a major new event we will be hosting later in 2015, something I have wanted to do for sometime but just hadn’t gotten to it. But the time is ripe and this to be announced convening is needed more than ever and will fill a gap in support for educators whom I would classify as my kindred souls.
  • In addition I am working with four colleagues, Betsy Barefoot of our Institute, Charles Schroeder an independent scholar and consultant, and Peter Felten and Leo Lambert of Elon University, on a new book to be published by Jossey-Bass in 2016.

The above litany is/are my highlights only. I think those and the items I did not mention will keep me busy, off the streets, and out of trouble. I write this after just seeing Tony Bennett perform live three weeks after his 88th birthday. And as a fellow man of the 20th century I feel even more inspired to stay at the top of my game for –yes, my own pleasure and satisfaction, and also the betterment of higher education. I hope you will consider joining me for any of these activities.

In Memorium: John J. Duffy

September 4, 2014John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

On this Labor Day 2014 I received news that one of my most important mentors, John J. Duffy, passed away very early in the morning. John mercifully and finally came to rest after a long struggle with a terrible illness. I had last visited him over Thanksgiving 2013 when he was still able to have the kind of conversation that enabled me to tell him all that he had meant to me.

When I think of the reasons why I am thankful to have been in my profession of a higher educator and professor, one of my top reasons is the wonderful mentors I have had, most of them at the University of South Carolina, who have made me whatever it is that I am today. John J. Duffy was primus inter pares in that distinct group.

I first met John Duffy on Saturday, January 13, 1967. He was one of four senior University of South Carolina administrators who signed off on me to be an adjunct instructor for three of the University’s “Regional Campuses” for the period 1967-68 when I was on active duty with the United States Air Force in South Carolina. My Air Force squadron commander had ordered me to come over to the University to have my credentials approved so I could perform what the Air Force defined as “community service”, college teaching. It was that initial teaching experience that provided me an entrée to ultimate full-time employment, which I enjoyed from 1970-1999. During the period 1983-1996 I was John’s Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and he was my Chancellor.

My first day on the job with him we had a wide ranging conversation that set the tone for the next 13 years. It was a period of profound influence on my development as a University of South Carolina leader and a leader beyond the confines of our campus.

So the first thing John said to me was: “John, do you know the difference between a Vice Chancellor and the Chancellor?” I told him I did not. His answer: “John, a Vice Chancellor is a mouse trying to act like a rat; and the Chancellor is a rat trying to stay out of the trap!” I concluded that one of my roles was to keep him out of the trap. In reality, he helped keep me out of the trap—or traps.

He also asked me a question that no one had asked me since my father had when I was 9 years old. I had a little black book in which I had written a “friends” list and an “enemies” list (not like that compiled by the Nixon White House!). His question: “John, who are your enemies?” My answer: “I have two John: 1) the football coach; 2) the University Librarian.” And two long stories unfolded which told my boss much more about me than about the two characters I was describing.

On that first day on the job he also taught me this:

  1. “John, we are going to get many choices and decisions to make in this office. And we will be regularly given the opportunity to choose what is best for our units, office, positions, versus the larger university. Much as I might wish they would always be one and the same, they will not. And we will always chose what’s best for the University.”
  2. “John, as we make these decisions, we will always make those decisions as if we personally could live with the consequences of those decisions for the rest of our careers and lives at the University—and on the assumption that we will be spending the rest of our careers and lives at the University.” And we did.
  3. “John, every year we are going to have to make final decisions about the budgets for our five campuses. And we will sometimes be faced with tough cuts that we will have to make. And we will be offered proposals that will include a variety of options to take those cuts. Sometimes those options will include cutting money for student assistants and cutting money for libraries and books. John, there is no university without students so we never cut their jobs; and there can be no university without its libraries, we will never cut our libraries.”

John Duffy gave me many gifts, including:

  1. the freedom to make my job whatever I wanted to make of it. I chose as my areas of key emphasis those of faculty governance and faculty/staff development
  2. the freedom to take on other duties of even broader service to the University and the country, which made possible my establishment of the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition; our series of international conferences on The First-Year Experience;  our prolific series of publications and scholarship; our launching of work on the “senior year experience”; and the establishment of our University 401 course for seniors transitioning out of the University. With me, he walked his talk in allowing me to do what was best for the University, even though at times those works took time away from my duties for him.

John taught me so much, including:

  1. That while we always worked for the current President of the University, our real employer was the people of South Carolina; and we better never forget that our most important job was to do what was best for those people, no matter how often we thought we were smarter or better than those people.
  2. That what was the key to his success was the quality of his judgment
  3. And the fact that people trusted him. I learned what leaders do to gain the trust of others. For one thing, they keep their word.
  4. The importance as academic leaders of spending a tremendous amount of time with our faculty, talking to them, listening to them, learning about their work, sponsoring their advancement. In our cases, this meant visiting their campuses often, spending social time with them, and eating, drinking, and staying up late with them!
  5. That there were times I missed a tremendous opportunity to keep my mouth shut! He would point this out to me gently after the fact but never in advance to muzzle me.
  6. That we would go to any lengths to protect the academic freedom of our faculty even if it meant moving them from one campus to another to protect them from political interference and punishment.
  7. That for the greater good of the University it was worth it to overlook many of the eccentricities and idiosyncrasies of some of our most talented faculty and staff, some of whom could be very difficult to work with and who would try the patience of their administrative ostensible superiors. What mattered most was the quality of their teaching, scholarship, and service to the University. Society must create positions for some of its most talented and ingenious citizens who just wouldn’t make it in conventional organizations that would constantly constrain their personal freedoms of thought and expression.

There is just now way I can do justice to this mentor. But he will always be alive and well in my head as I make my own daily leadership decisions. He really made a difference for our institution and so many people. And I wanted to emulate him in exactly that respect. John, you really haven’t died at all.