John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

The Beginning College Experience: What Could an Engaged Board Be Doing About This?

The Beginning College Experience: What Could an Engaged Board Be Doing About This?

Note: This blog posting was written at the request of and was initially published by AGB, Th Association of Governing Boards

The blog commentary is from a former struggling first-year student who became an international authority on improving the beginning college experience, and also a twelve-year veteran college trustee! This piece will briefly examine why trustees should invest any governance time and energy considering the issue of the first-year, and then if they did, what should they know and what could they do.

Trustees should care about the first year because…

The beginning college experience relates to and is arguably the foundation for addressing many of the issues that trustees care most about, and ultimately have fiduciary responsibility for:

*student learning and satisfaction

*institutional academic and financial viability and stability

*retention/graduation rates and prestige rankings

*expectations for student behaviors in and out of the curriculum

*athletic success

*student safety

*student abuse of alcohol

*success and behaviors of fraternity and sorority members

*town/gown relations

*the baseline for assessment of outcomes which is mandatory to maintain your institution’s regional accreditation

*and many more!

The first year of college isn’t working as well for many of our campuses now as when many trustees were first-year students themselves. This poses the challenge for trustees of empathy for and understanding of what both students and educators experience as challenges with first-year students. There are many, many factors influencing outcomes of the first year, but most notably the changing demographics of American higher education, declining family incomes coupled with rising costs, under-preparedness, and a host of other variables that interfere with student success. Bottom-line: today’s higher education institutions weren’t created for the majority of the students we now serve. We continue to struggle to adapt, but we aren’t moving fast enough. College worked well for this generation, not so well now.

Thank goodness, the success of first-year students is now a much higher priority for many campuses than it was three to four decades ago. There is now a widespread movement to enhance what is generically called “student success” especially in what has been called since the early 1980’s: “the first-year experience.” And also thankfully, there is now available a great deal of research on first-year students whose attrition rates are the highest and on interventions that purport to address these retention challenges.

So what do trustees need to know about?

You need to be continually updated on, especially:

*the characteristics of your student populations, in the aggregate and in key sub populations

*what are your trend lines in these characteristics and which students are you more/less successful with, and why?

*what actions are you undertaking not only to recruit students but to retain them (and proportionately what investments do you make related thereto—many colleges spend far more to recruit than to retain students)?

*what is your organizational structure for addressing these challenges and who is responsible?

*what are your retention and graduation rates, in the aggregate and as a function of race, gender, ethnicity, first generation status, Pell eligibility, residential versus non-residential status, athletic participation status?

*how does your institution orient students (and by whom?), generate expectations in students for performance levels?

*how is academic and career advising provided to new students and by whom?

*what evidence is there of effectiveness for first-year student focused interventions?

*what are the patterns of awarding of D,W,F,I grades for students classified as first-year, in so-called “gateway courses, and how do these grades correlate with: mode of instruction; rank/classification of instructor; demographic characteristics of students; and retention rates to the following year?

*how are faculty, academic/student affairs/student success personnel working together to address these challenges?

*how does paying more attention to first-year students connect in any ways to the rewards systems for faculty and staff?

What could trustees do about the issue of underperformance of first-year students?

This is the least complicated part of the equation. It’s very simple really. Engaged boards could and should: 

  • show an interest in this topic; make it a board priority; talk about it
  • have this discussed in multiple standing committees: academics/enrollment management/finance/athletics
  • consider having improvement in first-year student outcomes be incorporated into metrics for evaluating and compensating your CEO
  • request from your administration a study of the first year with a report to the board
  • participate in discussion or focus groups with first-year students and those educators who work with them

Of all the issues cited in this piece, the one you should be paying the most attention to is what I refer to as “American higher education’s best kept dirty little secret”: outcomes in high D,W,F,I grade rate “gateway” courses. When you get to the bottom of this you will know where your students are not being successful and you will have a focus for what to do about it! These courses are the REAL “first-year experience.”

The Transfer Experience Versus The First-Year Experience: How Do They Measure Up? Here is a Simple Toolkit to Answer This Question.

March 13, 2017Julie HellerInsights0

The Transfer Experience Versus The First-Year Experience: How Do They Measure Up? Here is a Simple Toolkit to Answer This Question.

I have just returned from a stimulating professional development experience, the 15th annual National Conference on Transfer, hosted by the NISTS, the National Institute for the Study of the Transfer Student. NISTS is located at the University of North Georgia. Founded by Dr. Bonita Jacobs, their President at UNG, this work was originally birthed when she was the chief students affairs officer at the University of North Texas. The meeting has been held each year in late January/February windows in either Dallas or Atlanta. Next year it will be in Atlanta again, February 7-9.

I am interested in the transfer student experience for multiple reasons:

  1. As a national higher education system, our performance with them in terms of getting them to BA degree attainment has been miserable.
  2. Transfer is now the normative route to the bachelor’s degree.
  3. My finding and contention is that transfer is still relatively low status—that is what I am writing about here.
  4. Earlier in my career at the University of South Carolina I founded a conference in 1995 and it is still going strong; “Students in Transition” which features a track on transfer students. The next meeting will be held in Costa Mesa, CA, October 21-23, 2017.
  5. The non-profit organization ( I lead has been trying to make a dent in this low priority since we launched in 2010 our Foundations of Excellence Transfer Focus process (, an assessment and planning initiative to provide for institutions a comprehensive plan to improve transfer—which few campuses have and all need. We have engaged sixty institutions in this work: 24 four-year and 36 two-year colleges and universities.
  6. Our non-profit, Gardner Institute, is also a current recipient of a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation planning grant to plan new work to integrate into high failure rate gateway courses taken by transfers digital learning components and pedagogies.

So all of the above lines of interest coalesced and brought me to this excellent transfer conference, February 15-17 for my second experience in this meeting.

In my work on transfer student success I have several dominant lenses in which I view the current status of transfers.

The first is that I see the level of attention and priority paid to transfer students as being about what that level of attention and priority was towards first-year students in the early 1980’s.

And second, and the subject of this posting, is that I am so struck by the inequities that are experienced by transfer students.

So just undertake with me a relatively brief and simple comparison of these two populations and especially how we in the academy go about treating them. A way to do this is to use what the Gardner Institute calls in its work a “policy analysis” …. basically an inventory of the policies that are directed towards transfer students and which can be used to compare with comparable policies for first-year students. Consider then the relative policies applying to first-year versus transfer students for:

  1. Application deadlines for admission
  2. Capacity for slots in any given academic term
  3. Financial aid awards—institutional monies, need versus merit based, special awards for first-year versus transfer students—amounts and eligibility guidelines
  4. Continued eligibility for such awards after first year of enrollment
  5. Eligibility for on-campus residential accommodations
  6. Application deadlines for housing
  7. Priority for allocation of available spaces in housing
  8. Eligibility for participation in student organizations, clubs, teams, student government, etc.
  9. Eligibility for leadership positions in student organizations
  10. Allocation for admission slots into high demand majors
  11. Registration priority and deadlines
  12. Availability of student organizations devoted to supporting this cohort
  13. Availability of special orientation and advising initiatives to support this cohort
  14. Availability of college/student success-first-year seminars for this population
  15. Stipulations that certain forms of student support be required versus optional for these populations
  16. The existence on the campus of a high level academic officer with specific responsibility for the welfare of this cohort
  17. In like manner, the existence of an advocate, champion at the institutional level, for the needs of this population, other than and beyond processing by Enrollment Management
  18. In like manner, an advocate at the academic unit in decentralized universities
  19. The priority for making available “High Impact Practices”
  20. The availability of such curricular cohorts as learning communities
  21. Availability of opportunities for on-campus employment
  22. Availability of opportunities for internships, practicum experiences and study abroad (with financial aid support)
  23. Internal systems of accountability for retention and graduation rates for this population
  24. A priority for addressing needs of this population as expressed in the institution’s strategic plan
  25. Being on the priority list and attention agenda for senior leaders and spokespersons
  26. A priority for gathering, analyzing, discussing institutional research data

And I am sure the above list is not an exhaustive inventory.
My prediction is that if you undertake such comparisons, you will find the transfer student cohort has drawn a very short stick. And that is our biggest challenge.

And as a mirror of low campus priority, and in part a cause of this lower priority, is the fact that the US Department of Education does not count transfer students in its IPEDS (Integrated Post-Secondary Educational Data System) model for measuring retention and graduation rates.

And hence the media’s ranking processes for institutional prestige, especially USNWR, also does not “count” these students.

So, if you buy my thesis and model here, what might we do to move the transfer experience further along to more closely approximate the status now of “the first-year experience?”

Ah, that calls for another blog posting, actually multiple postings, given that has been the focus of my work since the early 1980’s.

In the meantime, please try your version of the policy audit toolkit described above. And then act on your findings. Be prepared to have your notions of equity and social justice challenged when you remember just who these transfer students are when compared to first-year, first-time, full-time students.

I was not a transfer student and I’m glad I wasn’t. In my case, this was the luck of the draw as the adopted person I am. I was a second-generation college student, fully supported by affluent parents. If I had been a transfer student, I might not be where I am today given the biases then, let alone now, in our higher education system. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Coming…a World Boycott…?

Coming…a World Boycott…?

I have recently attended the 36th Annual Conference on The First-Year Experience. One of my great joys in life, professionally and personally, is this annual renewal learning experience. I am the founder of this conference series now 36 years running as the title states. This series of meetings until recent years was also hosted periodically in countries outside the US. At this year’s meeting there were over 1700 attendees from just over 20 countries. The attention to the first year is truly an international movement.

As I interacted at this meeting I found myself expressing special gratitude to educators who had come to the meeting from outside the country, at a time in our history when our new Presidential administration was attempting to impose a ban on entry into the United States who were members of a particular religious denomination. Not only did I want to thank these non US educators for coming to our suddenly less hospitable country, I also found my embarrassment about our change of official posture extremely embarrassing.

One of the things I have enjoyed the most over these past 36 years is all the wonderful friendships I have made with like-minded higher educators from all over the world, all of whom are working to increase the success of first-year students.

During the conference I received an e-mail from one such former international colleague whose message I am now going to excerpt and quote from where my correspondent is describing a trip he and his wife have been planning to the American southwest in late February, 2017:

“…..We are driving south on Feb.20…a few days in Palm Springs then to Scottsdale for a week and then a week in Las Vegas. We are driving back via Utah and then across to Portland via the Columbia Gorge. We will take about 5 weeks to complete our trip depending on weather. We seriously considered cancelling but because we are meeting my sister and brother-in -law in Arizona we decided to continue. We have decided that this will be our last trip to the US for several years. Our attitude towards the US has turned pretty negative and it as if we are turning against what we believe in from a moral perspective if we continue to travel there. Even though there are lots of great people there and friends like yourself, we will not be going south of the border after this trip. 

Many of our friends feel the same way. Unfortunately, the US has gone from one of the greatest countries in the world to one of the least respected. Our lives won’t change and neither will our decision to avoid the US change the direction your country is headed…..but we will feel better. Our future travel will focus on Canada and perhaps Portugal or Spain. We would love to see the Republicans wake up and act responsibly but I do not think that will happen…

Glad to hear that the FYE conferences are still going strong. I certainly enjoyed working them with you

We just heard from friends in Michigan who have lived there for 32 years that their house is up for sale and they are moving to Victoria ASAP. They have a daughter living in Toronto whom they visit frequently. The attitude of the border guards has changed drastically……in a very negative way….and they are sick of listening to their unsolicited comments………

We have heard that Sarah Palin is a possible candidate as US Ambassador to Canada……hope this does not happen because she is a joke and an insult to the entire political field…

Best wishes……

As I think about the implications of what the message communicated, I think I feel coming on a world-wide boycott of discretionary tourist travel into the United States. This is really going to hurt.


Tenure: Look to Those Who Have It

February 22, 2017Julie HellerInsights0

Tenure: Look to Those Who Have It

This will be a brief piece inviting a focus on, recognition of, those on your campus who are so fortunate to have tenure. We are going to be looking to them more than ever for the leadership we need from them from their privileged vantage point with the protection of tenure.

For as long as I have been a member of the academy as a professional, there have been debates in the non-academic world about whether tenure is necessary or appropriate. And currently the question is being raised again. I was a tenured professor, from 1976-1999 at the University of South Carolina, with the majority of those years being at the highest faculty rank for my last 23 years. Since 1999 I am Distinguished Professor Emeritus, and the CEO of a non-profit organization in which I do not have tenure either as an employee or President, but rather a rolling three-year contract. I remember what it was like when I was a faculty member without tenure. In fact, in my first academic job, non –tenure eligible, I was not renewed because of my activities in a small South Carolina city initiating a local chapter of the ACLU and for suing several prominent local parties. Not smart John. I was quickly dispatched.

Once I had earned tenure I found on several matters that I needed it. One had to do with stances I took which our all-powerful Athletic Department found to be unfriendly in terms of my unwillingness to engage in certain practices for first-year student athletes. There were a few very powerful people that became very unhappy with me over my stance related thereto. And then there was my administrative coordination of a module in the University 101 course called “Sex and the College Student.” The University president got so many complaints about that from parents that a form letter was developed in response. Without tenure, I would have been really vulnerable, the educational legitimacy of using pro-active preventive education to combat the spread of the AIDS virus notwithstanding. One of our finest hours as a faculty occurred, I thought, when one of our Provosts stood up to a huge campaign mounted by thousands of right wing zealots to deny a gay faculty member a promotion. This professor, the author of a book titled Growing Up Gay in the South, had offended many on the right by his offering of a special topics course for professional K-12 leaders on the theme of “how to combat the religious right.” Admittedly, not too subtle or diplomatic. But the administration stood its ground and didn’t give in and he was promoted to full professor. And then there was the time a group of tenured faculty, including yours truly, took an official stand against a move being driven by a member of the Board of Trustees as a cost saving initiative to outsource our campus custodians. Problem: most of these employees were African Americans with less power than any sub group on campus. Had they been outsourced they would have lost the same health and other benefits that I enjoyed by virtue of my relative privilege. My colleagues regarded this potential as immoral and unacceptable in a just community. We stood up for them and the move to outsource them was blocked. Tenure does matter.

Of course, none of us can look at our careers, present or past, with total objectivity. But it is my own personal self-assessment that I never abused my tenure. I used it to take stands to advocate for students needs and best interests and to enable me to offer respectfully my counsel to my superiors with total honesty and without fear of reprisal should my opinions differ from theirs. One of the criticisms of tenure is that it protects a class of drones whose productivity decreases upon the award of this privilege. In my case I am positive that any external review of my record would conclude that I was more “productive” after receiving tenure than before its granting. And that is also true of most all of the tenured colleagues I have known throughout my career.

So here we are now, several weeks into a new presidential administration and in a sea of vast uncertainty as we all try to chart our responses. It does seem clear that the academy will be under a microscope and that we will be attacked. It is even more certain that we will be dealing with distressed students and having to make choices about how we respond to their protests, for and against actions taken by the new administration.

The times ahead are definitely going to call for courage and risk taking, particularly in the public higher education sector that is dependent on state legislative funding from legislatures the majority of which are now under the control of the political party that is most likely to retaliate against those of us they perceive as being inappropriately “liberal.” I predict that our untenured colleagues will be looking much more closely at those of us who are tenured to take the stands that our untenured colleagues can only dream of taking. They will want us to stand up and be counted. They will want us to own our power. They will say if we who are tenured don’t speak up, then who can? I write in this vein because I think it is very important that those of us who have tenure be aware that our less powerful and secure colleagues will be watching carefully how we exercise our leadership and academic freedom.

For those of us who do not have tenure, I hope you will be letting those of us who do, what you expect of us, what you need from us.

My wife, Betsy Barefoot, and my long-time colleague at the University of South Carolina, Mary Stuart Hunter, have been facilitating once a year at the Annual Conference on The First-Year Experience, a session entitled “Spirituality, Authenticity and Wholeness in Higher Education” since 1998. This session has become a perennial favorite for colleagues of all ranks and roles who have come together out of their commitment to enhance first-year student success, to share how they are dealing in their home campus settings with the challenge of incongruity between individual values and those espoused by the highest levels of institutional leadership. A theme that we have been hearing for almost twenty years now is the desire for more conversation on campus, encouraged and framed by campus leaders, about what matters most. This involves risk taking that is best taken, now, more than ever, by those with tenure.

Please remind your tenured colleagues of their obligation to fulfill this kind of leadership expectation. I don’t need to be reminded but many of us do.

Massacring People and Meaning: Why Liberal Education is Vital for Democracy and Our Very Existence

Massacring People and Meaning:

Why Liberal Education is Vital for Democracy and Our Very Existence

by Dr. Drew Koch

Massacres are as American as apple pie.

Unfortunately. And sadly. But seriously.

Before there even was a country, there were massacres – establishing white settler dominance on what would one day become U.S soil.

Our nation’s foundational story is based, in part, on a 1770 massacre in Boston.

Massacres eradicated Native Americans who resisted Manifest Destiny.

Massacres ended slaves’ lives when their forced passage became too inconvenient for their handlers.

Massacres punished black troops who dared oppose the Confederacy and African Americans who attempted to assert their rights in the post-Civil War South.

Massacres killed laborers advocating for safe working conditions, and fair wages.

Massacres killed civilian inhabitants of villages where we waged war, unarmed prisoners of war, and students who protested against war.

And on, and on, and on . . .

Along with the massacres have come efforts to control the narrative about them. Paul blogfebRevere masterfully used the Boston Massacre as a propaganda tool to promote war with England. The Wounded Knee Massacre was initially portrayed as a battle initiated by the Sioux. Other examples abound.

In many instances, powerful elites tried to erase massacres from the historical narrative all together. Few of us ever learned anything about the Zong, Colifax, or Orangeburg Massacres during our formal educational experiences.

Yes, massacres, and the manipulated or buried narrative about them, have always been a tragic part of America’s history. Thus, it should come as no surprise that over the past two weeks, two massacres have entered the conversation.

One of these massacres never actually happened – a falsehood alleged to have occurred in Bowling Green, Kentucky; cited to legitimize a thinly-veiled and unconstitutional Muslim ban. The other massacre actually did occur.

Two weeks ago, a Republican party leader from Michigan used a Twitter post to call for “another Kent State” to silence student protesters on college campuses. And while all massacres disgust me, it was this action that compelled me to write this blog.

I am not writing to shame that party official. The fact that he deleted his Tweet – and recently resigned his position – leave me hoping that he realized his comments were unbecoming of a leader in a democratic republic.

In his study of massacres from 1900 through 1987, political scientist R. J. Rummel concluded that the more mature a nation’s democracy, the less likely it is to experience state-led or sanctioned massacres. Based on this analysis, massacres must be viewed as breakdowns of civility, decency, humanity and, ultimately, democracy.

This is why it’s nearly unfathomable for me to see that a major party official in the twenty-first century United States would call for a massacre. We are supposed to be better than this.

But there is hope.  And it resides, at least in part, in how America’s colleges and universities educate their students.

I believe that education is the antidote to massacre’s poison and allure. Educational experiences that teach the art of respectful, civil discourse; promote reason over rabid extremism; base lessons on scientific method and findings rather than “alternative facts,” and advance pluralistic and global engagement over xenophobic isolation and extremism foster the conditions that lead to mature democracies. And I am convinced that liberal education yields the kind of learning that best nurtures engaged citizens of and leaders for a mature democracy.

In the present United States, it is easy to be disheartened by politicians calling for the death of protesters, initiating “extreme vetting” campaigns, and accelerating deportations. It is enough to make reasonable people – and I believe that is the majority of us – feel completely powerless.

But those of us who have the privilege to work in and with America’s colleges and universities have the power and ability to counteract this blight. We have agency – and it comes in the form of liberal education.

And this is why I must issue a call of my own.

In response to the former GOP party leader who asserted that it was “Time for another Kent State” because “One bullet stops a lot of thuggery,” I call on the all the state universities across the nation – as well as their community college counterparts – to redouble their efforts to advance liberal education.

Because while “one bullet” might stop “a lot of thuggery,” the application of liberal education across 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States can lead to the kind of thinking that can stop a lot of bullets and, in the process, preserve and enhance America’s promise.

Good Things Will Come from Campus Unrest: They Have Before

February 15, 2017Julie HellerInsights0

Good Things Will Come from Campus Unrest: They Have Before

In May of 1992, my former and still cherished University of South Carolina colleague, Stuart Hunter and I, co-hosted along with James Griffith, the chief student affairs officer, an International Conference on the First-Year Experience at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. There, we were approached by an educator whose request to me now seems almost prophetic in light of what has been happening on a number of American campuses since January 20.

Her name was Elsie Watt and she introduced herself as a doctoral student in US social history at Queens University, Ontario, one of Canada’s most elite universities. She explained to us that she was looking for a dissertation topic that could grow out of the history of US campus social protest movements in the late 1960’s/early 70’s. She had just learned by attending a session Stuart and I had done that the University of South Carolina’s highly regarded and widely emulated first-year seminar course, University 101, had been born out of the convergence of the civil rights/voting rights/students’ rights and anti-war movements—in the US in general and at the University of South Carolina in particular. She went on to seek our formal permission to visit the University to conduct research for a dissertation that would trace the historical origins of the course University 101 to ascertain its connections and impetus to the social protest movements. So she spent the better part of two years with us in South Carolina in the University archives, in my papers, and in interviewing scores of University officials who had been involved in any way with responding to the social protest movement which by that time was 20 years distant in time. She did complete her dissertation on this topic and its findings have long served as a reminder to me of the positive outcomes that did come about from the period of campus turmoil, a significant part of which revolved around antipathy for two US Presidents in succession: Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Yes, you are assuming correctly: a number of us senior (reference to age not rank) higher educators have been experiencing Deja vu since January 20—and as Yogi Berra so famously said: “Déjà vu all over again!”

I am exhibit A of a higher educator whose life was profoundly altered by the social protest movement. Because of the Vietnam War, I was drafted and sent to South Carolina on active duty. It was the Air Force that gave me a direct order to become an adjunct faculty member in my off-duty time. I lost my first higher education faculty job because of my involvement in social protest activities (with the ACLU); that, in turn, led to my faculty position, thank goodness, at the University of South Carolina, three months after a tumultuous student riot had shaken the campus. One outgrowth of the riot was the President’s action to ask the faculty to create what became the University 101 course, to teach the students, in his words, “to love the University.” It was his thesis that we could teach this and that if we were successful they would not want to or need to riot again. And they haven’t since the course was created in 1972. I acknowledge that this is correlation and not causation. The social protest movement then further impacted me because I became the first faculty director of this initiative to prevent student riots, a position I held for 25 years.

I think it is important for all of us in higher education as we face the uncertainty of how we are going to deal with challenges of unrest on our campuses and the likely political pressure on many of us to stifle our opposition to government actions, to remember that the last time our country faced significant student protest, there were many positive outcomes! I admit it: I am looking for some upside to the changes we are going through.

So what were some of those outcomes of the social protest movement the last time we really had one:

  1. The students were a definite contributing factor to ending the war in Vietnam. That for me is the most important outcome of all.
  2. Student opposition to the expansion of the Vietnam buildup started by President Kennedy and greatly ramped up by President Johnson, contributed significantly to his decision not to seek reelection in 1968. Could students possibly bring down a President again?
  3. Student opposition to the war and the related draft for conscription, contributed to the Congressional action to end the draft.
  4. Student objections to the presence of ROTC, Reserve Officer Training Corps, programs on campuses led to a profound rethinking of this opportunity on college campuses.
  5. Student demands for greater participation in institutional shared governance where heard and met. We now all have students serving on important committees and some of us work in institutions where there is even a student member on the institutional governing board.
  6. Student demands for the ending of gender-based separate social and conduct regulations were met demanding the end of separate and definitely not equal privileges that had created inequities of practices like curfews for women but not men.
  7. Student demands for increased opportunities for participation in intercollegiate athletics were met.
  8. Student demands for greater sensitivity to the needs of formerly de jure discriminated against students of color contributed to a myriad of new forms of academic support and efforts at greater inclusion.
  9. Student demands for greater freedoms of assembly and free speech effected profound change in campus cultures.
  10. Student activism was one of the many contributing factors to the growth of the Student Affairs profession as campus leaders recognized they needed far more educators “living over the store” with the students. It’s a foolish campus CEO who doesn’t listen to her/his Student Affairs colleagues sense of the student pulse on campus today.
  11. Student activism also profoundly impacted the extent of faculty-student interaction outside the classroom including and often especially within our most esteemed research universities.

I am not going to undertake here a thorough, let alone scholarly, treatise of my thesis. This is not the forum for that kind of discourse. And I have only gotten started on my above list.

As I listen to and read about my fellow higher education leaders struggling to find the most appropriate responses to both their and our students concerns about the state of American political actions and discourse, I take heart by remembering that we rose to the occasion once before in the 1960’s and 70’s and I believe that we will again. I just hope it doesn’t take a war to generate a new anti-war movement. I am too old to be drafted this time, but not too old to serve in other ways the best interests of our democracy.

Why Chief Academic Officers Matter (and Now More Than Ever)

February 7, 2017Julie HellerInsights0

Why Chief Academic Officers Matter (and Now More Than Ever)

By John N. Gardner

February 7, 2017

Since January 20, 2017 I have been thinking even more about what kind of leaders we have on campus as compared to our government. In that vein, my wife, Betsy Barefoot and I just attended the annual winter meeting of the chief academic officers of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. Spending several days with those outstanding men and women reminded me of how important a role that of CAO is and I want to remind my readers here of why that is the case. We need and will be looking to these leaders in this coming year more than ever. I do this also in the spirit of a book that Betsy and I are the co-authors of, along with Peter Felten, Leo Lambert, and Charles Schroeder, published this past May: The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most. The Chief Academic Officer is…

  1. The protector of and advocate for the faculty
  2. The chief developer of the institution’s most important resource: its faculty
  3. The primary driver for attainment of the academic mission and core values
  4. The primary guarantor of institutional academic quality
  5. The principal advocate for student success
  6. The leader for integration of academic and student affairs’ roles
  7. The principal convener for innovation in student success
  8. The primary driver for academic continuous quality improvement
  9. The primary shaper of faculty rewards’ systems
  10. The primary leader who keeps the CEO out of trouble
  11. The primary internally focused leader
  12. The primary protector from the corporatization of the institution
  13. The leader who hires the deans and department chairs who hire and lead the faculty
  14. The primary academic change agent
  15. The primary academic resource allocator
  16. The primary custodian of academic freedom

My thoughts on the above should be credible. They were forged during my own stint as Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs for the University of South Carolina’s five Regional Campuses from 1983-96. I’m not sure I always met the test of my 16 points above but I did my best. My current status as a recovering former CAO and now CEO of a higher education related non-profit organization makes me much better at my current job, of that I am positive!


Returning the Gift: You Never Know What a Student Can Do Unless You……

February 6, 2017Julie HellerInsights0

Returning the Gift: You Never Know What a Student Can Do Unless You……

I have just completed fifty years of being, proudly, a higher educator, a profession that our society needs more than ever to teach students how to discern the difference between facts and “alternative facts.” All of us in the profession are constantly exposed to unproven students who need us to invest in them. How do we know what they can do? What they can amount to in life? We can’t unless we give them a chance…

Thankfully, I learned this fifty years ago, right after I arrived at my permanent base in the United States Air Force and about a week before I started teaching my first class. I met someone that I made a bet on, that I “invested” in, literally, and wow, it has really paid off. I will explain. I think of this former student so often as a reminder of what my work is all about. It helps too that he and I are still in regular communication.

So I had only been on my base for a couple of weeks, arriving January 10, 1967. And this former student, Raymond O. Booth, arrived on January 27. He also was assigned to the 363rd Tactical Hospital at Shaw AFB where all the hospital staff ate in what was referred to as “the chow hall.” We were a small squadron and it was easy to get to know everyone regardless of rank differences. Even the physicians fraternized with enlisted personnel and esprit de corps was very high.

dennisthemenaceIt didn’t take long for all of us in the squadron to take notice of this guy. He was the shortest by far, had a loud, high, voice which almost sounded pre-pubescent. He looked kind of like the cartoon strip character Dennis the Menace and he even had a blond cowlick sticking up on the rear of his head as did the infamous Dennis! He definitely did not look military. We all could hear him the minute he entered the chow hall greeting all like his long lost extended tribe. There was consensus that he was the funniest person any of us had ever met. And the patients loved him. He was a medic who worked OB-GYN. His MO was to practice what he called “happiness therapy” and he was so good at uplifting the spirits of his patients that they complained to his supervisors when they gave him a day off. He had another skill all of us admired: he could come to the very edge of mocking his superiors, including the hospital commander, but doing so under the camouflage of humor. Even the brass loved his calculated insolence. He was truly the Hospital’s Everyman.

And I, who never met a stranger, sought him out and frequently sat with him in the chow hall. I learned how bright he was. Underlying any skillful humor has to be the gifts of intelligence and insight. I learned that he was from a rural town in north central Ohio, one of ten children. His parents had no college education. Father was a steelworker. No one in the family had ever been to college. Raymond was a high school graduate, and amazingly given his size, a former football player. The guy certainly had more courage than I did. He had never been anywhere. Had never seen any ocean, which he finally saw for the first time while stationed in South Carolina. I know because I had never met anyone who had not seen an ocean and I wanted to see how he reacted so I drove him over. He uttered unprintable exclamations.

Most of all I knew about him that he was really smart, and a really gifted communicator. So given my biases I inquired as to why he hadn’t gone to college after high school graduation. He told me: “Oh, I could never have gone to college—no member of my family has ever gone to college. We don’t do college!” He didn’t know it but he had laid down the opportunity gauntlet with me.

So I kept working on him about going to college. I told him that there was a college program right on base offered by the University of South Carolina for troops just like him. And better still, the Air Force paid 75% of the student’s tuition. But he told me he couldn’t afford the 25%. He also had a lot of other “reasons” why he couldn’t do college. For example, he thought he wasn’t intelligent enough. I used my best logic and psychiatric social worker skills to neutralize all his forms of resistance, all but the tuition cost.

Finally, I said to him: “OK Raymond, what would you say if I paid the other 25%? But you have to make at least a B. And once you do I will fund a second course and so on.” Of course he was flabbergasted and said he could not allow me to do that. I told him I could and would.

Back story here was that during college I had really angered my parents. I had gotten into a living arrangement with a young woman of whom they did not approve. To both punish me and try to motivate me out of the error of my ways, they cut my allowance from $100 a month to $50 a month, a real hardship. I happened to share this with the mother of one of my friends. And she immediately insisted on giving me $50 right then and there and told me to always carry that fifty-dollar bill on my person “for emergencies!” and that she would mail me a fifty dollar check every month thereafter for the balance of my time in college. And she did. The most important aspect of this arrangement was her insisting I make a pledge not to repay her but to someday do the same kind of thing for someone else. This deal was made in the fall of 1963 and I found a way to repay it in the spring of 1967 with Raymond O. Booth.

Some footnotes:  I broke off the relationship my parents objected to the end of that school year; my parents restored my allowance for the following year. And I sold my car at the end of that year and gave the proceeds to my benefactor who had told me she did not want me to repay her. Even though she accepted the repayment she told me it did not let me out of her original deal obligating me to return the gift to someone else.

OK, back to Raymond Booth. He did agree to my deal. And he took his first course—actually, from me. He earned a B in the course. He took three more courses in succession at Shaw AFB, which I underwrote. Then the Air Force shipped him to the Philippines and he was on his own thereafter.

After his four-year Air Force tour was over he took his 60 or so college credits earned by that time and transferred to a private college near his Ohio home town and finished his bachelor’s degree, with a great deal of assistance from his new wife, Holly. I attended their wedding in December of 1971. He joined his wife in the profession of public school teaching in Ohio where he taught middle school children for over 30 years. He also earned another degree, a masters. And he was a MASTER teacher. He was a dramatic storyteller, classroom performer, lover of his students and calling.

What a wonderful investment I made. He was the first of my students I invested in –in all the ways one could invest. He was the only student though for whom I provided the initial seed money other than my two children. Wow did he return the gift. And so did I.

So you never know what a student can do, unless you……..

*give them a chance, a break, like surely you must have had

*return your gifts

*communicate high expectations

*reiterate those high expectations

*address each of the factors that are inhibiting their getting started

*challenge and support

*let them know you will hang in there with them forever

*allow each student to teach you a lesson

I was so thankful to learn early in my career what dividends are paid for the giver and the receiver—and society—when we give students a chance.


Immigrants’ Child: Thoughts on Belonging in the United States and My Work Ahead

Immigrants’ Child: Thoughts on Belonging in the United States and My Work Ahead

by Dr. Drew Koch

I am the son of immigrants. Like millions before, my parents came to the United States in search of a better life – for themselves and their future generations.

A close study of history has taught me that many persons did not arrive to this land in the same manner. Some were here long before the start of the Western European migration – first nations peoples who somehow did not “vanish” despite the best efforts to forcibly claim and displace them from their soil.

While force was being used to remove some peoples, it was simultaneously bringing Africans to these shores – in chains, as chattel labor, and, until recently, counting at most as only 3/5 of a human and then only for someone else’s benefit.

Yet others, such as Mexicans, were forcibly incorporated into the nation – courtesy of treaties that were signed without their input.

Even when peoples came willingly and legally, they were often less-than fully embraced. Exclusion acts, nativist anti-immigrant practices and movements, and even internment centers infringed on the rights of those who were lawfully admitted to till, shape and build the nation. The message was clear – you can come in, but you don’t exactly fit in.

As a child of immigrants I wrestled with what it meant to be American on a near daily basis. My first language was not English. My mother has a thick German accent. My father’s forename, Wolfgang, screamed “I’m not from here” even if his English was accent-free.

I was “the German kid” – routinely taunted on an elementary school playground by a bully and his toadies who greeted me during recess with “Koch ties his shoes in little Nazis” and “Heil Koch-ler!” In art class, the same classmates “lovingly” crafted and donned swastika arm bands and then saluted me as they exited at the bell. Somehow, the playground monitor and art teacher respectively but similarly chalked this all up as good-natured ribbing.

When I would visit family in Germany, aunts and uncles would tell people meeting me for the first time to pardon the fact that I spoke a dialect of German used 40 years earlier. “Er ist nicht echt Deutsch, er ist Amerikaner” – He’s not an authentic German, he’s an American – they would apologetically tell the new acquaintances before I got a chance to speak.

While at times painful and confusing, I would not trade this personal experience for any other. It has made me a culturally liminal person – someone who has had to learn how to span and be competent within many cultures simultaneously. It has made me compassionate as well as passionate – compassionate for others whose lives span multiple cultures; passionate about equity and inclusion.

My personal experience and study of U.S. history tells me that that the fights for inclusion, social justice and civil rights progress have been anything but linear. They have come only with vigilance and persistent pressure – by an alliance of the oppressed and their allies.

So, for those of you who feel alarmed by immigration bans, border walls and the rise of the Alt-right, know that I share your concerns.  For those who speak with or have family members who speak with an accent, know that I too have lived this experience.  For those of you who have wondered if you belong, know that I have asked the same questions about myself.

And the answers are simple even if the issues are complex.

You all belong, just as I do too.

I am an American, and so are you.

And I pledge allegiance, to the charge, of making a united state of Americans;

Through the work I do at the Gardner Institute, and my life outside the office;

In the pursuit of liberty, and justice, for all.

E Pluribus Unum.



Photo of the Pan American Airlines plane on which my father flew to immigrate to the United States from Germany in 1955.


The passenger manifest from my father’s immigration flight, March 30, 1955.  (Passenger #5)