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…
- The protector of and advocate for the faculty
- The chief developer of the institution’s most important resource: its faculty
- The primary driver for attainment of the academic mission and core values
- The primary guarantor of institutional academic quality
- The principal advocate for student success
- The leader for integration of academic and student affairs’ roles
- The principal convener for innovation in student success
- The primary driver for academic continuous quality improvement
- The primary shaper of faculty rewards’ systems
- The primary leader who keeps the CEO out of trouble
- The primary internally focused leader
- The primary protector from the corporatization of the institution
- The leader who hires the deans and department chairs who hire and lead the faculty
- The primary academic change agent
- The primary academic resource allocator
- 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……
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.
It 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
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)
Fifty Years Anniversary Posting—But Who’s Counting? I Am!
Milestones, life markers, whatever we might want to call them, are important, for us professional higher educators and for our students. For those of us working with first-year students or seniors, the 2016-17 academic year would be very fitting to suggest to them as a life marker. You could encourage them to be noting some contrasts between world and national events, trends, and the major events of their lives, like starting college or preparing to graduate.
I had one of my own on January 10, 2017. That marked the fiftieth anniversary of my arrival in South Carolina and the commencement of my journey as a higher educator, a citizen in service to his country. I would never have dreamed on January 10th 1967 that any of the major events of my career would have taken place. Not that I was exactly a tabula rasa. I had been influenced and prepared by my own outstanding liberal arts education to take maximum advantage of opportunities that were both going to serendipitously present themselves to me and/or other opportunities that I created and seized the moment therein.
Once upon a time, on a mild, what passes for a winter night, in central South Carolina, I arrived on a Wednesday night, and checked in at my duty station: Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, South Carolina, and specifically the 363rd Tactical Hospital—not as a patient, but as the newest member of the hospital staff, a young, idealistic, mildly anxious, brand new psychiatric social worker. I had arrived in my Karman Ghia sports coupe with all my worldly goods inside, which mainly consisted of many of my books from college and graduate school; some of my college notebooks (yes, hard to believe, but I was so attached to them I had brought them along for the ride); my “record” collection; my uniforms; and some civilian clothing.
I had driven down from my parents’ home in New Canaan, Connecticut. Shortly after crossing over the South Carolina border I passed through two small towns, Latta, and Timmonsville, where I couldn’t possibly have imagined at that time, I would return time and time again to the homes of two different women that I married (in succession, not simultaneously).
When I signed in to the hospital an NCO told me to: “Relax. We don’t salute or wear hats in the hospital area and we don’t shine our shoes!” I would soon get an alternative directive from my first supervising psychiatrist (whom I now “Skype” with in New Zealand where he lives a saner life than is possible in the US) that I was to “spitshine” my shoes so that my career military patients could see their reflections in the shine on my shoes and thus feel more confident and comfortable in sharing their life histories with a very young looking social worker. My boss admonished me to look “military” and so I always wore freshly dry cleaned white medical uniforms to further inspire rapport. I don’t know whether or not the tactics worked, but they did really open up with me.
So the first day, not on campus, but on the base, it was de rigueur for the hospital squadron commander to call new personnel in for a welcome and orientation. This consisted of him bracing me at attention with a copy of my record open on his desk at which he continually glanced up and down. Soon he told me “Gardner, you will have more education than anyone in my squadron except for the doctors.” This included him but it was not evident at all that he held that against me. In fact, it was the basis for him giving me the gift of what is now my fifty-year professional life.
He went on to say that because of my educational level (BA and MA at age 22 just 3 weeks short of my 23rd birthday) “This means you are going to perform community service.” I had only been in the Air Force for a little over three months in basic and officer training but I knew at least that the operative expected reply to any statement from a superior officer, regardless of gender, was “Yes Sir.”
But I knew I was free to ask a superior officer a question. So I asked him “But Sir, what does that mean?”
And he replied: “Gardner, it means you are going to do some college teaching.”
I was flabbergasted. It had never occurred to me to become a college teacher. I had only gone to graduate school to avoid the draft and had been drafted anyway. Then I volunteered for the Air Force to avoid the Army and the Air Force in its infinite wisdom and total control over my body, and mind, put me in its medical corps and sent me involuntarily to South Carolina, the last place in the US I wanted to be. I was a white, liberal, Connecticut Yankee, college grad and South Carolina was just 2.5 years beyond the Civil Rights Act. I had even volunteered for Vietnam in order to choose another duty station than in South Carolina. This process was known as “The Dream Sheet.” You got three choices. I chose Lakenheath England, Weisbaden Germany, and Vietnam. I got Sumer South Carolina. Go figure.
On the base everything was racially integrated. Cocktails were freely available and condoms were on highly visible display at the check-outs in the Base PX and food establishments. But the minute I drove off the base I entered a world of appalling segregation: schools, housing, movies, toilets, drinking fountains, the local hospital, restaurants that proclaimed “we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone”; doors into public buildings, etc. And here I was staring down at my squadron commander who happened to be an African American, who was about to exert the greatest influence on my life, short of my parents’ decision to adopt me. And also off base, there were no legal cocktails served anywhere and no public display of condoms either.
So I continued my response to my commander: “Yes, Sir. But I am not a college teacher, Sir. I have never taught anything. I am a psychiatric social worker (which I had never done either!).
His response: “That’s all right, Gardner. You will learn to be a college teacher. The Air Force needs college teachers to serve our on-base higher education program for our troops and we are desperate for qualified part-time faculty. This is South Carolina two years after the Civil Rights Act and we don’t have an abundance of good teachers moving down here wanting to teach. The Air Force needs you to do this. You will do this. You have a day shift job and you are –you were- free—in the evenings and now you will be teaching in the evenings.”
What else could I say but “Yes, Sir!”
He immediately sent me to the Base Education Office where the Base Education Officer also reviewed my transcripts (as had my commander who obviously was impressed by my grades at the beginning of the alphabet) and so this officer immediately called somebody at the University of South Carolina, 42 miles to the west, which was the provider of the college courses on the base to make an appointment to see me. I was then ordered to report to the University 48 hours later on Saturday, January 13, to have my credentials officially reviewed. In that era most colleges and universities had Saturday classes.
I drove into Columbia two days later and was interviewed by multiple administrators. The Sociology chair approved me to teach Sociology 101. The history chair (whom I met in his apartment and learned that he was a member of the extended “Ochs” family, the founders of The New York Times) approved me to teach four different courses: US and Western Civilization History. I told him that I had a mail subscription of the daily and Sunday Times sent to me at the base. I later learned that I was the only member of my squadron who engaged in such a practice. I had been doing this since I was a first-year student in college as The Times was not allowed by my father in our house who viewed it as Communist influenced paper!
In my closing interview that Saturday a senior administrator told me that I had been approved to teach these five courses and that there was a need for me to start teaching two weeks later at a campus in a town I had never heard of, Lancaster. It was a small, rural, regional campus that had been started in 1959; and all the students were either textile mill workers or the children of those mill workers. I didn’t know it then but I would be teaching at that campus when it admitted its first African American student whom I would have in my class.
I told this Dean that I couldn’t possibly begin teaching in two weeks, that I had never taught anything and that I needed at least six months to prepare a course. His response: “Mr. Gardner, anything that comes out of your mouth will educate those students!” I was astonished at such cynicism, but agreed to accept the appointment. Sixteen years later in 1983 I went to work for this same officer as Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs for the University’s five regional, two-year campuses. How could I have possibly foreseen this on Saturday, January 13, 1967?
The basis on which I accepted my first teaching assignment was that I teach the course from 7.30-10.00 on Friday nights. The campus was so desperate for an adjunct faculty member that they agreed to it. My choice of Friday nights was driven by the fact that the campus was 65 miles from my base and that teaching on any other night of the week would have had me returning back to the base very late at night and I needed my beauty rest to be at the top of my game when I started seeing my patients at 7.30AM the next morning. And I didn’t see patients on Saturday so that was the deal. I must confess that most nights after my Friday evening class, I would go out drinking with my students! I dropped that practice pretty early in my career.
Within a few months though, I was also teaching two courses per night, 5.30-7.30 and 7.45-9.45, two nights a week per eight weeks for every Monday/Wednesday and Tuesday/Thursday sequence on the base itself with military students. And on Friday nights I had my civilian students in the textile mill town. And on Saturday morning I taught at a regional hospital for student nurses who needed Sociology 101 in a place called Orangeburg; I would be teaching there about 18 months later one evening in February 1968 when the bodies of 33 African American students were brought into that hospital, three dead, 30 wounded, all shot in the back by SC Highway Patrolmen while the students were peacefully demonstrating the continuing segregation of a bowling alley. This event subsequently became known in American history as: The Orangeburg Massacre.
Yes, it is now fifty years. My wife, Betsy Barefoot, whom I recently regaled with my fiftieth anniversary memories, is amazed at the detail of my recollections.
Ok I started teaching then, first week in February 1967. Friday nights. My students were NOT happy about having to be there on a Friday night. I was not initially happy either. Instead, I was initially quite anxious. So much so I would say I was having a mild “adult situational reaction” which is a diagnostic category straight out of the American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for that year! Yes, I was anxious—and for good reason not having ever taught before and not knowing anything about the culture or lifestyles of my students and being only one week ahead of my students in terms of preparation.
And I looked so young. Had no hair. So some nights I wore my uniform to compensate. My students were so respectful. So polite. They addressed me as “Sir” almost like they were in the military too. I was so anxious on those first few Friday nights I couldn’t eat before class.
But after about six weeks my symptoms abated and I began to feel more comfortable about coming to class. In fact, I had to admit to myself that I was excited about coming to class. I looked forward to it. It was the highlight of the week.
And there it was, the most important epiphany of my life: I had discovered my vocation, my calling, my purpose in life. And all thanks to the United States Air Force and the University of South Carolina. What was the epiphany? It was that I realized that college teaching was permitting me to do simultaneously the four things I loved the most to do in life 1) talking—and to “talk” in front of a class, I had to do—-2) reading. I had always been a reader. I loved to read. I had not been raised on television because my parents refused to have one as long as they had children in the home. 3) writing—after reading I wrote notes for delivery in class. I loved to write. And I was pretty good at it; and most important of all 4) helping people. And there it was: my adult profession in which I got to do talking, reading, writing, and helping people—and to get paid for it to boot. I had never imagined that I could earn a legal living, and one with redeeming social value, where I would be paid for doing those four things I loved to do.
After finishing my tour in the Air Force I was an instructor of history at Winthrop College in Rock Hill, South Carolina for two years. Was terminated there for my liberal civil rights activities. Lucked out, again, and immediately was offered an appointment at the University of South Carolina. Spent the next thirty years there moving up through all the faculty ranks from adjunct instructor to Distinguished Professor; and the same with administrative ranks from program director, national center founder and executive director and vice chancellor for academic affairs. Initiated an international reform movement to change the way higher education introduces students to higher education—and other crusades too.
And it all started 50 years ago. I feel like I have been on an adventure. I have been. And am still on it. Not quite sure where it is going now because I am not sure where my country is going. I never had a traditional lock step game plan and still don’t. But I did have a few great original ideas that made a difference. And I owe all of these life marker events to the Air Force, which taught me the importance of “service.” Nobody had ever said to me in college that I needed to perform “service.” Hard for me to imagine that now. Surely most of all us talk to our students about the importance of performing service, of what college graduates owe our country. But I was almost 23 and no one in authority had ever said that to me before until that African American commander of mine in the Air Force.
What are the lessons from my life that I would share with my students? They are legion:
- Let college prepare you for the unknown
- Be open to new possibilities
- Take healthy and appropriate risks
- Obey authority figures who give you legal and moral directives
- Yes, you do have an obligation to serve others
- Life is a journey. Make the most of it.
- Try your best to leave your community, employing organization, country, a little better than you found them.
- And, oh so much more.
Happy anniversary John. You made it this far. Who knows what else you might be able to accomplish?
John N. Gardner
I don’t really need an MLK Day to make me think of Dr. King. I think of him frequently for the impact he had on my own consciousness and life. I think of him in the 2017 national presidential election cycle especially in terms of the unfinished civil rights movement, and the fact that there surely would be no President Barack Obama were it not for the ultimate sacrifice of Martin Luther King.
In the summer of 1963, when King delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech on the Washington Mall, I had just finished my sophomore year in college. I didn’t know that a few months later my Presidential hero, John Kennedy, was going to be murdered. That August though, I had a summer job in Hillside, New Jersey, as a steelworker, laboring in a factory making millions of beer cans, and not a drop to drink — real torture for a red-blooded American college kid like me. On the day he made that speech, I was driving on the Garden State Parkway. I had my car radio on, and I listened to the news coverage of the demonstration and speech. As he started to speak, I knew that I was never going to hear another live speech like this again. I just couldn’t believe my ears. His words and spirit touched me like no speaker I had ever heard. I rapidly became enthralled and so for my own safety I pulled over to the shoulder, shut my engine off, and took in the speech in wonderment. I hadn’t yet begun to conceptualize that I would ever earn my own living as a public speaker, and even if I had, I would not have imagined ever being able to speak like that. And, of course, I can’t. However, he inspires me to this day.
Just five relatively short years later, with the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts adopted, and the Civil Rights movement in full swing, along with the war in Vietnam, I had been drafted and then volunteered to go on active duty. I was stationed at a US Air Force base in South Carolina (as a psychiatric social worker) in April of 196\8 when Dr. King was murdered. I was scheduled to teach a class in Sociology 101 the next night in my capacity as an adjunct instructor at USC Lancaster, and I just couldn’t imagine sticking with my original game plan for that class. So, I went to the base library and checked out several of Dr. King’s works, and used the following class for an extended eulogy and exploration of his life and its significance. My eulogy consisted largely of readings I did for the students who sat there looking –some of them—shocked, others embarrassed and avoiding eye contact with me. The next week when I returned to teach that class the campus Dean met me before class to inform me that a “delegation” of students had come to see him to complain about my previous class describing me as a “N…… Lover.” I couldn’t and didn’t deny it.
Fast forward, here I am, 49 years later. As I look at my own continuing work to help colleges and universities improve first-year and transfer student success, more than anything else, I see my work as part of the continuing, unfinished, civil rights movement. This has been powerfully confirmed for me in the past few months as more and more attention has been called, rightfully so, to the institutionalization of inequality in the US. Now, once again, the whole country is talking about inequality, the 99% vs. the 1%, the myth of American upward social mobility, compounded by our myth that we are a classless society with equal opportunity for all.
I know my work was needed when I was just one, lone, classroom adjunct college instructor in a small, rural, southern, textile mill town. I am far from that now in terms of my own stature but my work is needed just as much given what we know to be the powerful inequities that remain in our society that can only be corrected by education as the primary means of upward social mobility.
There are so many examples of one person making a difference. Dr. King is about as good an example as I can think of. He inspired me then. He inspires me now
As an exercise for any of my readers who work with college students, ask them who inspires them, and think long and hard about what they tell you. This year, on the anniversary of Dr. King’s murder, would be a great time for such a discussion.
John N. Gardner
For many of us on Inauguration Day 2017 it was just impossible to resist comparisons of Martin Luther King and Barack Obama. Different men, different times, different contexts, different speakers. I wonder, wouldn’t even want to venture a guess, what percent of our country’s college students actually heard/saw the address live. Sadly, I suspect very few relatively. And if they had/did, did they know what they were hearing that might be significant? I hope some of us have been talking about this with them.
I had been in college two years when I heard, live, Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. I remember where I was, time of day, what I was doing. Really quite simple. I was in New Jersey in August of 1963, driving to a second shift job in a factory that made beer and soda cans. Millions of cans and not a drop to drink. A real torture for a 19-year-old college kid like me. I was a unionized steelworker, who didn’t know what he wanted to major in at the end of his sophomore year, let alone what he wanted to do in life. But I knew what I didn’t want to do: work the rest of my life in that plant. It was a character building experience that had been arranged for me by my father. The older I get the smarter he gets. And he has been deceased for 35 years.
I was working for the first time in my life in a very multi-racial/ethnic environment. I was a child of privilege who was dropped into an ideal learning setting. I was learning that even though I thought the plant’s jobs were incredibly monotonous, they were nevertheless the ticket to good middleclass incomes and lifestyles for my fellow workers. They were lucky to have them. And I was happy for them. America was then in the business, unlike now, of growing its middle class. I knew there was going to be a march that day.at least had a car a simple radio, good enough to catch Reverend King’s speech live as I drove on the Garden State Parkway. After few paragraphs into the speech, I knew that I had never heard anything like this in my life. So I pulled over on the shoulder and put my flasher on. In my best of college lecture classes, I had finally grown up enough to be a very active, focused listener to some really good stuff that would stimulate my thinking if only I let it. But this speech was something else. I had never heard anything like it. Not even President Kennedy’s Inaugural, which I had also heard, when I was a senior in high school. Not only how it was being delivered, but what was being said. I shall never forget that day. While I couldn’t fully anticipate the contribution the speech would make—how it would increase the momentum to pass the Civil Rights Bill one year later, and the Voting Rights and Higher Education Acts two years later, I knew enough to know that it was going to be a game changer for our country. And so what are our students thinking about what they heard in this Inaugural? I hope you are helping them think that through. How are they trying to connect the words to what may unfold for them? What difference might it make for them if we developed a more humane policy towards immigration? Do they want to see Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security preserved, modified? Are they regretful there was no mention of the national debt as the Republicans have lamented? Did it strike them as significant to hear a US president reference explicitly our fellow citizens who are “gay”? Did the speech strike them as an unapologetic, even uncompromising exposition of liberalism? So many questions they could be asking. So many things for them to be thinking about. We are helping them, I hope.
If I were 19 again, and had heard the speech just two days ago, would it have implanted itself in a way that I would remember it 39 years later? I am not sure. But I know that after two years of college, the college experience had already better prepare me to know that what I was hearing was really something special. I am thankful we now celebrate the birthday of this great American. Many of our students cannot remember a time when we didn’t, let alone the resistance to doing so. And that is another indicator, that resistance or not, America is changing, ready or not. We need to help our students be more than ready.
John N. Gardner
Like millions of Americans with whom we are in good company, I, in my capacity as President of the John N. Gardner Institute, and the Institute staff are trying to figure out what lies ahead for our country in the aftermath of the recent Presidential election. However, in spite of post-election uncertainties, I am not waiting to see which way the wind blows to chart a course. Nor will I allow our professional principles to be compromised or weakened in this new period of American history – a period during which it appears some would have the nation back away from the unfinished agenda of the American Civil Rights movements. Admittedly all of our U. S. Presidents and their administrations have found there is a profound difference between campaigning and governing, and we really don’t know how all these directions we fear are going to turn out. So we do have to try, difficult as that is because of the attendant anxiety, to let this play out while at the same time making our own position clear. The new administration has been duly elected and now inaugurated, and I certainly support the need for the appropriate transfer of power. But I am both concerned and saddened that the election was a catalyst for raising to more prominent levels the latent racism in our society and accompanying xenophobia, misogyny, and prejudice against gay, lesbian, transgendered fellow citizens. I worry that we are confronting potential adoption of public policies that will only exacerbate economic inequality by instituting disproportionate income tax reductions for the wealthiest amongst us and redistributing federal school aid money away from America’s public schools. And I am fearful of policies that will further punish immigrants and more generally the poor and will reduce or eliminate health insurance for the approximately twenty-two million fellow citizens who gained coverage under the Affordable Care Act. Amidst all of these uncertainties and fears, I do know what my positions are, and with these positions in mind, I will endeavor to lead the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education as we
- redouble our efforts to improve the success of all undergraduate students, regardless of country of origin – especially those from low income, first-generation and minority backgrounds who have been so historically disadvantaged;
- continue to argue for more attention and priority to historic low-status courses (gateway, high failure rate courses) and low-status and historically neglected student cohorts, especially first-year and transfer students; and
- provide the best possible advisory support to those college and university educators – faculty, academic administrators, student affairs and student success professionals – who are dedicated to improving the success of these students.
I firmly believe that our work is in the national interest, and I am committed to pursuing legitimate efforts that will improve higher education attainment levels for all. I believe that this stance is totally compatible with our mission as a non-profit public charity. I am proud of our efforts to contribute to making our country a more educationally just and successful country. As one of the Institute’s Co-Founders (along with Betsy Barefoot), I would argue that our continuing work is a patriotic duty just as was my youthful volunteering for service in the armed forces during the Vietnam era and, upon my honorable discharge, my zealous pursuit of civil rights activities, which cost me my first academic position in an American college. I will not diminish my commitment to these core issues now. To the contrary, I will pursue the Institute’s mission with more dedication, resolve, and focus than ever.