John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Keep it Simple—but Profound: It’s all about the Journey and Relationships

February 16, 2016huhnInsights0

John N. Gardner

John Gardner copyAs higher educators we have in common that we are always mindful of what are, ideally, the impacts of higher education—so that we can intentionally replicate these for our own students.

In my case, one of the many outcomes was learning the Socratic Method, and then practicing it henceforth and for ever more.

This happened the fall semester that President Kennedy was murdered, 1963. I was taking a course in political philosophy and we were reading Plato’s Republic in which his narrator, Socrates, practices his method, whereby he interrogates many others in this search for the truth, his truth. His assumption is that all of us have some notion of the truth. And that to get your own truth, you interact with others and learn their truths which become like half truths that you add up to create your own truth. The most important truths that Socrates is in search of are two that I have carried with me for the rest of my life post college: 1) what is justice? And 2) who should rule?

On the afternoon of Friday, November 22, the class set aside for the professor to interpret for us students Socrates’ answer to “who should rule,” our class was interrupted by the news of the shooting of President Kennedy. The day is indelibly marked in my memory as is Socrates’ answer.

Since then I have been on multiple “journeys” that make up my overall life journey. One of these journeys is the pursuit of a healthy and long life. I learned some of the fundamentals of that in college too, as a varsity athlete (crew) where I discovered the power and synergy of the mind/body connection. That is another story. But by no means did I learn all that I needed to know to be fully successful in this journey—I am and must still be learning.

For the past few years I have been led on my health journey by a wonderful physician that my wife, Betsy Barefoot, and I have as a mentor. His name is Thomas Rennard and he practices in Asheville, N.C. We have really lucked out. And our US health care system really is a game of roulette. He knows the odds all too well and treats and refers us accordingly.

In a recent, approximately sixty minute conversation with him he summarized for me his philosophy for his practice of medicine. As I listened to him I couldn’t help but wish he was teaching this to medical students. I found myself thinking that “My doctor is saying better than I exactly how I might describe the essence of my career with students and colleagues.” I also was thinking that he was expressing this much more succinctly and profoundly than I could have.

So what was his message, his Socratic truth? It all comes down quite simply to: journey and relationships. The philosophy underlying his practice of medicine is to join a journey, the life journey of fellow human beings who happen to be his patients. He accompanies them on this journey. He signs on to their journey and is a highly committed fellow traveler. And to do this means he has to have a level of organizational stability, to his practice, community, and local patients. The commitment is fundamentally to others. His is a lifetime commitment.

This means that he starts the journey wherever he finds us when we first see him—in Betsy’s  and my case, in our mid to late 60’s. And he continues the journey for as long as it lasts. He shares and empathizes with us along the way.

I recall that I learned in my study in college of American literature, that one of the most powerful motifs of our literature is this notion of personal growth through journey. Start with Huck Finn and go on from there.

My wife and I are on a raft going down a river with this physician as our guide.

To do this he has to get to know us. He has to understand us, how we live our lives, our life choices. He has to invest in those. To do all this he has to have a relationship with us, his patients. Rather than automatically substitute a battery of sophisticated and expensive tests to determine what is going on with us, he talks to us first very thoroughly, and respectfully. This is not an efficient process time wise. But his is a thorough process. I am sure my readers have some inkling how difficult it is to have such a practice when we realize the pressures of modern medicine to efficiently get patients in and out the door. So there it is: he fulfills his oath by taking many journeys with his patients through the context and lens of the relationships he develops with them, and for them.

Isn’t this exactly what we should be doing with our students, and some of us are doing with our students? I am so glad I stayed at one university for three decades where I could really see my relationships with students through much of their natural life cycle. This helped make some of them more whole, and definitely me more whole.

While I was good at knowing when to refer my students for various kinds of professional interventions from learning study skills, tutoring, counseling, career planning, financial aid, etc, I attempted first to glean enough information from them and to establish a relationship before making such referrals.

Very recently at a national conference I was in conversation with a friend and colleague who one of the most highly esteemed authorities in higher education about data use and institutional research metrics. He/she knew me well and this led to him/her to make this  observation: “When it comes to trying to improve student success, some would say that before you can decide what to do specifically for students, you have to have a philosophy for what you want to do. But I would say instead that you have to start first with the data. What does the data tell us?” Now, of course, my physician wasn’t there to be a party to this conversation. But had he been I suspect he would have said, “No, first you have to have a philosophy” and, of course that was exactly my position as my colleague knew full well. So the alternative argument here is that you have a philosophy as your foundation that stipulates you see yourself as being on a journey with patients/students with whom you have relationships, and out of that structure you will make better assessments and yield better outcomes.

As I look back on my career and ask what gives me my highest levels of satisfaction, gratification and learning, it is the journeys that I took with my students and the relationships that I developed with them to take these journeys. Both these ideals were ends in and of themselves—the journeys and the relationships, not just means.

So I am thankful to my physician for stating more simply and profoundly in just three words what my most important journey has been all about, and what I would want the structure to be for far more of our students: journey and relationships.

And once again I have discovered the power of the Socratic Method—the truths that reside in significant others. Thank you Dr. Rennard.


Changes That Are Cold and Distant

January 4, 2016huhnInsights0

John N. Gardner

The end-of-year holiday period is one in which I do many things I haven’t set aside the time all year to do:

  1. Hosting visits from wonderful children and grandchildren
  2. making charitable contributions
  3. income tax preparation
  4. making vacation reservations for 2016
  5. putting up and taking down a tree and other decorations
  6. holiday letter to people to whom I used to send Christmas cards
  7. phone calls to lifetime special friends
  8. writing some in the same cohort

John Gardner copyAnd it was in that latter category this year that I wrote a man who used to be my wife’s and my family physician. We became his and he ours right after he graduated from medical school, the epitome of the best our higher education system educates and trains. He was charged with the very latest knowledge, idealism, optimism, youthful but mature energy, with his total adult life open before him. Eventually he moved on to another part of the country but we have stayed in touch. He is doing very “well” in terms of the way we conventionally measure success in terms of attainment of professional excellence and success. But he wrote me a line that I just can’t get out of my mind—keeping in mind this is a physician with 1100 patients and so busy it takes a new patient six months to get an appointment with him:

“The changes in medicine make it cold and distant”

“……cold and distant….”

“……cold and distant…..”

I wish I could make that thought go away. This is now what I wanted for my friend. This is not what I want for myself and my loved ones in our US medical system. This is not what I want for our students either—not only in our medical system but in our higher education system too—the latter being the critical preparation process for delivery of professional medical care.

On the board of directors of the non-profit organization I am privileged to lead, we have a director who is a very, very successful entrepreneur from the health care industry. He keeps pointing out to me and the other fellow directors the parallels he sees between the changes in our health care system and those in our higher education system.

Some of the most obvious parallels:

Example: the increased role of government regulation in both sectors

Example: the increased role of technology in delivering the core processes of both

Example: the huge costs of this increased reliance on technology

Example: the increased demands for public scrutiny and accountability of “outcomes” from both systems

Example: the decreased autonomy of the formerly most powerful members of the two comparable professions: professors and physicians—whose status, power and compensation is now less than the administrators who “manage” these systems

Example: “managed” care and “managed” delivery of the college experience

Example: rapidly rising costs that outpace annual inflation rates with said costs being passed on to consumers

Example: the lack of political will to make universal access to both health care and higher education a birthright, an entitlement

Example: unequal access to both systems as a function of race, ethnicity, socio-economic status

Example: mergers and consolidations in both

Example: not-for-profit colleges and hospitals becoming increasingly more and more like for-profit institutions in both sectors

Example: struggles and even closings of small, rural, private colleges/private hospitals

I could go on with this enumeration of parallels but I think the above list is sufficient to make my point.

I don’t know anyone who has spent any time in the US healthcare system who has not found some contexts and interactions within that system that are truly “cold and distant.”

As I think of my friend’s evocative phrase, I find myself wondering how accurate a characterization this would also be for many components of the American college going culture and experience.

Asking the right questions:

I hope my readers will join me as we start this new year by considering this description of higher education along with some questions:

Does “cold and distant” describe some components of your campus culture?

What does that mean very specifically and operationally?

What are the consequences of this for student learning, success, retention, graduation, health and welfare?

Does it really have to be that way?

What would account for whatever is cold and distant?

Who is accountable for this?

How did we get to be this way?

What would it take to ameliorate that?

What would be the cost benefit ratio for taking the necessary steps to do so?

What is keeping us from doing so?

Recognizing that there may be elements of my own institution that are “cold and distant” about which I have no say and control and not even any ability to influence, what could I do to insure that those elements under my control and influence will not be characterized in this manner? Yes, each of us must reduce this to our level of locus of control. We all have some level of locus of control.

A New Year’s Resolution

As I prepare for my work in higher education for 2016 I am going to keep this phrase foremost in my mind and strive to do what I can to make this less descriptive of the changes we are making in American higher education.

This is my new year’s resolution.

Veterans’ Day 2015: What Did I Derive from my “Service” Experience and How Did That Compare to my College Experience?

November 18, 2015huhnInsights0

John N. Gardner

John Gardner copyToday, Veterans’ Day 2015, I went, as is my custom, to the recognition ceremony for veterans in my adopted town of Brevard, N.C., a small, rural, mountain town of about 6000. While I don’t need this day and ceremony to remind me of the impact on my development of military service, it is certainly a moving reminder each year.

Today’s ceremony could not have been held on a more beautiful late fall day. The turn out was about 200, give or take, almost entirely older white citizens. The majority of us vets were Vietnam era, but there were a few Korean War era survivors left standing. The occasion is one for grandstanding by local elected officials who can’t resist the allure of air-time in front of voters and this best opportunity of the year to demonstrate their patriotism. The ceremony is a mixture of patriotism, martial fervor, jingoism, religious invocations and blessings, ethnocentrism, claims about how much better we have made the rest of the world, music, overuse of sexist language recognizing the “men” as if no women had served, coupled with powerfully sincere respect and gratitude for those who served, and especially those who lost their lives in service to country. In spite of the elements I find objectionable, I wouldn’t miss it.

For one day of the year I feel all the differences between me and my fellow local residents do not matter. We are all one. We all have one thing in common. We are all bonded. We are family. We are connected. We have a set of common experiences, values, shared memories of similar rituals, and sacrifices.

Much of my mental professionally related time is spent thinking about the impact of college. What difference does college make in the near and long term now for students, and their families who are paying so dearly for higher education? Some of the outcomes that I would hope come about as a result of the college experience could also be realized from military experience.

My own experience was that I had already been to college and graduate school before I went on active duty.

I started my tour late in my 22nd year. That meant I had a head start on maturity as compared to a beginning college student.

The outcomes of my military experience were these:

  1. The Air Force gave me my life’s vocation: that of higher educator. That happened because my squadron commander on my first day on duty at my permanent base, gave me a direct order to perform “community service” by which he meant adjunct teaching for the University of South Carolina. And that was how I got my big start. So in this case, the military ordered me into my life’s work. Usually in the higher education culture we are not nearly so directive with our students. We don’t have the same abilities to give them “direct orders.” If we do they can refuse and we can’t court martial them. We can simply deny them academic credit or degrees.
  2. The Air Force sent me to work and live in a part of the world and my country where I never would have chosen voluntarily to be, the Southeast. It was a game changer. And when I finished my tour and was honorably discharged I voluntarily decided to remain in the south.
  3. The Air Force taught me what it means to “serve” and perform “service.” I had not learned that in college. In my era, colleges weren’t into the business of teaching such concepts intentionally and experientially.
  4. The Air Force exposed me to an incredibly wide range of “diversity”, much more broadly and powerfully than I had ever learned in college or at home. I met, served with, lived with, ate with, socialized with, a range of fellow citizens that I would otherwise have been socially isolated from were it not for the Air Force.
  5. The Air Force taught me to put the needs of my country before my own. I certainly never learned that in college.
  6. The Air Force taught me how a large and complex organization and bureaucracy, Catch 22 and all, worked—or at times didn’t work. And how to function very successfully in such an environment. I certainly never learned that in college.
  7. The Air Force taught me a level of tolerance of people and their views that were vastly different from mine, particularly those with more conservative notions about foreign policy and the Vietnam War, that I had not learned in college.
  8. The Air Force taught me the concept of “mission.” I had to understand what was the “mission” of the US armed forces, the Air Force in particular, my “command” in the Air Force (the Tactical Air Command), my base (Shaw AFB, S.C), my squadron on my base, the 363rd Tactical Hospital, and my unit in my squadron—the hospital Psychiatric Clinic—(I was a psychiatric social worker) and finally MY mission in my unit, squadron, base, command, and branch of service. No one in authority during my college years had ever asked me to think about, let alone develop, my mission. But by the time I was discharged from the Air Force, I had a mission. It was to serve my fellow citizens and country as a higher educator, and in particular, doing what I regarded as a kind of missionary work in the civil rights era South Carolina.
  9. The Air Force taught me a body of knowledge and a set of skills. The knowledge was in the field of applied mental health and psychiatry. The skills were those of listening, interviewing, clinical observation, empathy, counseling, therapeutic interactions, and understanding of human behaviors, including deviancies and mental health disorders. These outcomes have proved so valuable for me as a professor, administrator, parent.
  10. The Air Force taught me the power of what we now call in my line of work in the academy as “peer leaders.” In the military context these were the Non Commissioned Officers, the squad leaders, those in positions of key unit authority but who were closest in age and educational attainment to the most junior troops in the unit.
  11. The Air Force taught me that the most powerful way to develop disadvantaged citizens was to give them responsibility and to teach them how to handle that responsibility. I saw some of the most unlikely citizens turned into outstanding leaders and contributors when they were given responsibility combined with high but reasonable expectations.
  12. The Air Force taught me the importance of “basic training” for new entrants into a new subculture—in our higher ed context the analog to “orientation” for new students and transfers. Unlike many colleges, orientation/basic training was not an elective experience. It was mandatory. As my Drill Sergeant used to say: “There are three ways to learn things and if you want to survive Vietnam you will learn the right way, the wrong way and the Air Force way.” Today we still are not teaching enough college students how to “survive” in the college/university way. And many of them are not surviving and hence not thriving.
  13. The Air Force showed me how a government “program” could provide levels of equal opportunity for people from very diverse backgrounds, opportunities that were unequaled in the civilian society. While I was based on a totally racially integrated base from 1966-68 in the deep south, the society immediately outside the “back gate” remained totally segregated.
  14. The Air Force helped me to understand the important role the military played, and still plays in providing upward social mobility for generations of poor, rural and urban, disproportionately southerners and minorities.
  15. The Air Force introduced me to how organizations could intentionally create “leaders” through “officer training. It helped me to see that just as with professors, the best of us are not born that way we are made, we are developed by our employers.
  16. The Air Force showed me how to take responsibility to educate your citizens about a variety of subjects that were still taboo in the larger civilian society, such as in particular, sex education and prevention of pregnancy and disease.

Oh there was so much I learned in my military experiences.

No doubt about it, I am very clear as to what the outcomes were for me from my military experience.

So when I gather each year in front of our local courthouse on the 11th day of the 11th month at the 11th hour, I know why I am there and what my experiences in common with my fellow vets did for me and made me whatever it is that I came to be. The jury is in on me. And I owe the US Air Force a great deal. It is a balance due, of further service.

I am not suggesting that my military experience was more important than my college experience. It was just different. The two were complementary. The two were hugely influential. I reflect often on both and apply what I have learned from both. Both made me more complete, whole, mature, wise. I am grateful for both. I made the most of both. And I wish more of our country’s young people today could have both. But in the era of the volunteer army that is not going to happen.

If Only You Had the Time

November 17, 2015huhnInsights0

John N. Gardner

John Gardner copyTo be fully human is to have the thought, raise the question: “If only I had the time…?

I would like you to apply this train of thought to whatever is most important to you now professionally. So assuming you had all other ingredients in order—you got the concept, the big idea right; you have the backers you need; you have willing and needy recipients of whatever it is that you are trying to do; and the resources and assets are there—but if only you had time. You can get it launched. Maybe you already have. But what about its full development and then what about institutionalizing whatever this is and making it an inherent part of the way your place does its basic business? If only you had the time….?

My thoughts on this are inspired by a visit my wife and I just made to Barcelona, Spain, where, like millions of tourists before us, we visited multiple sites of the work of one of the world’s greatest architects: Antoni Gaudi. Best known for his revolutionary and innovative design of the Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona, he spent 43 years of his life devoted to this one masterpiece. Actually, he had multiple masterpieces but this one would be generally regarded as his ultimate creation. He died in a tragic accident in 1926 at 74 years of age, with the cathedral not yet finished but with his plans and drawings produced comprising the basis of construction that continues to this day. It is the goal to have his work completed on the one hundredth anniversary of his death – 2026. I plan to be still alive and to go see it!

So what are you working on now but do not have time to bring to full fruition and realization of all its potential synergies, replications, adaptations, permutations, and perfections? What are you working on that you would want your college or university, as in the case of Gaudi, to be still working on 100 years later? Fanciful thinking you say! I say not. I engage in this kind of thinking all the time and it has been one of the keys of my success.

I would frequently walk my own campus, the University of South Carolina, founded in 1801, and particularly within the confines of the original part of the campus, our hallowed ground, I would find myself thinking that students, faculty and staff had been walking that same ground for two centuries. And most of them had been faced with similar categories of major life decisions that I have faced and made, often for all of us with the help of the University. It helped me to know the historical context of what had preceded me. And I was very conscious and deliberate about creating something that would make my university stronger and better for my having been there for only three decades—the further development of which would be carried on for much longer, maybe even another 100 years. I refer, literally, to the launching of the first-year experience concept in 1972, which I shepherded for 25 years. But it certainly wasn’t finished at that point and my successors have been subsequently furthering the development of that concept for the following sixteen years in many exciting ways that I could not have fully imagined but now fully appreciate. And I believe I can make a rational and objective case that this work will continue, like Gaudi’s cathedral, for another 100 years.

We have just gone through the annual awarding of the Nobel Prize winners. I look forward to reading each year in The New York Times the biographies of these incredible men and women of the sciences, economics, diplomacy, and literature. What strikes me as a pervasive theme in their distinct lives is that all of them found some intellectually powerful, demanding, all consuming line of work, exploration, creation in young adulthood and they stayed focused on that line of work where one discovery led to another one frequently for three to four decades before their work was recognized.

I invite you to practice delusions of grandeur. Think of yourself as having another 40 or so years to work on what is now so compelling and then being externally rewarded for your work that has been so intrinsically rewarding now for so long—but not long enough—if only you had the time….?

Well you do have the time. Look at it as your building a foundation, laying out a grand design for a great something that you will launch and others will take up. That’s why it doesn’t matter that you don’t have the time.

I just can’t stop thinking in this manner. I like to think that the current signature work of my non-profit organization, the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education, still in its nascent stage, will become a work of another century. I refer to our pioneering work on Gateways to Completion, G2C, our effort to reduce failure rates in gateway courses and therefore increase retention and completion rates. This is a hugely complex problem, towards the solution to which there is so much built-in resistance pervading the academy. Oh, but only if I had the time? I do have the time. I am laying a foundation and others will continue the building of the cathedral where far more college students will be successful and fulfill their hopes and dreams, and ours too.

Why Didn’t I Think of That?

November 10, 2015huhnInsights0

John N. Gardner

John Gardner copySurely all of my readers at one time or another have had the thought “why didn’t I think of that?” In my own case, as much as I travel, I wish I had invented the roller board suitcase. What a back saver that has been! And millions of them are in use in every size, shape, color.

And what about bottled water? Why didn’t I think of taking a substance that exists usually in some “free” form and packaging it, making it portable, and get people wanting to pay for something for a commodity that historically they did not think of paying for?

I have just been in Spain where I was reminded of the universality of a device that I didn’t think of but am glad others did: the cell phone. This is truly a one-world phenomenon. Everywhere I looked, on the streets, in restaurants, in parks, airports, almost everyone I saw—several thousand over 10 days or so—were holding this one device in common. It has become essential in ways that we could not have imagined. Its use is changing the way we communicate, spend our time, meet new people, retrieve information, you name it. When my wife and I go out for a meal, there are really three of us: Betsy, me, and her smart phone. Yes, I have one too. But I am not on it as constantly as she is. She knows our meals are non-stop conversation and we will constantly be raising questions with each other about something we want to know the answer to—and out comes her phone to retrieve the answer. Why didn’t I think of this?

Well, I did think of something that hundreds of thousands of people have used, experienced, mostly for their betterment. I am the creator of the “first-year experience” concept, which has been adopted in programmatic formats in a few thousand colleges and universities the world over in such manners as to pay more attention to the success of beginning higher education students than we used to. My invention came about in 1982 and was developed in the context of my employment with the University of South Carolina. So when I registered this form of intellectual property, as a registered trademark, I did so with the University of South Carolina as its proper owner—which is exactly what I should have done—no regrets. In 1998 we adjusted the “mark” out of respect for women, from “the freshman year experience” to “the first-year experience.” I am also the creator of the “senior year experience” concept to call more attention to another critical transition period during undergraduate years. And in my professional life for the past sixteen years I have created with my colleagues in our non-profit John N. Gardner Institute, a number of other trademarks that describe our processes: Foundations of Excellence, Gateways to Completion, and Retention Performance Management.

I guess I could argue that I could or should quit while I am ahead. Most people don’t ever get to create anything in life that becomes widely used by others, let alone has redeeming social value. But I was socialized by my mentors to never rest on my laurels and be complacent. So seeing all these Spaniards doing what my fellow US citizens and students are doing, all of them doing one thing in common, using a smart phone, has nourished my professional fantasy life on this trip resulting in my asking: what is it that I could invent that every campus in the world would want to have, do, use, join, share? I really have been racking my brain about this.

At this point in my career, the thing I want to be part of more than anything else professionally, is a world-wide movement to transform gateway courses, where all the failure is occurring in higher education. Under the leadership of our Institute’s Dr. Drew Koch, I have been working with my colleagues on the development of a new process to fulfill this fantasy that I have just shared. We have created Gateways to Completion, G2C, and are attempting to launch a higher education reform movement to reduce the deplorable D,W, F, I, grade rates eventually the world over.

Is this a smart phone, bottled water, roller bag invention moment? Well not yet. But nobody gets anything done of consequence with low aspirations. So we’ll see. I invite you to stay tuned and check out our work. This just might turn out to be really something!

John Gardner’s Coming Out Party in College

October 22, 2015huhnInsights1

John N. Garnder

John Gardner copyLike some of my readers perhaps, I have been back to my alma mater, Marietta College of Ohio, many times since graduating 50 years ago. I returned to be awarded an honorary degree twenty years to the day from when I graduated (1985). I have visited numerous times to speak to students. I served on the Board of Trustees for twelve years. And I have been involved in numerous projects involving the work of the faculty and staff on improving the first year, dating back to 1979, many involving campus visits. But this blog posting is prompted by the occasion of my returning in October, 2015, for my Fiftieth Anniversary Class of 1965 reunion.

It was not a good year for men to graduate from college, as it was the first year of the Vietnam War buildup. In order to escape the war I went to graduate school but was drafted a year later anyway. Many of my classmates married immediately after graduation in order to earn a draft deferment. At my reunion I saw some of them who had done so. Not me.

On this return to alma mater though I was not engaging in any professional business. And so I had time and opportunity to do some things I had wanted to do but had never gotten around to.

One of those things was a visit to the College Library Special Collections department where the past editions of the student newspaper, The Marcolian, are archived. I had long remembered the single most important event in my four years at Marietta, important in the sense that it changed my place in the College and how others saw me. Quite simply, it was a letter that I wrote to the student newspaper to protest certain actions of my fellow students. After the letter’s publication, students and faculty alike never saw me the same again. They had read a John Gardner they had never known before. There was no going back. I could not put the genie back in the bottle. I feel like my true adult journey as a crusader for certain kinds of justice began with this letter.

I penned, literally, this letter in anger, dismay, disillusionment after witnessing, and attempting to counter a student riot of sorts. The event so disturbed me that immediately afterwards I left the campus and took the Greyhound bus to New York City and holed up for six days until I felt like I had regained sufficient perspective to return to college. While away, I wrote a letter to the editor of the student newspaper, which was published in my absence from campus. The first day back I could immediately see both my professors and fellow students looking at me differently. I did not save a copy of that letter. So on this return visit to alma mater when I was searching for perspectives on the meaning of my times as an undergraduate student, I found a librarian special collections archivist who retrieved a copy of my letter and provided me a photocopy.

This is what I had written:

Dear Editor:

Thursday evening Mar. 7, a man driving a cab owned by the New Cab Co. of Marietta, turned into Butler Street from Seventh Street and coming upon the water, which still covered the road, he foolishly entered the field along the road and attempted to make a “U” turn.

 Having half completed his circle, he was halted by the mud. This was soon noticed by someone on a concourse of Men’s Residence # 2 and as a few more men became aware of the cab in the field, they began to yell.

 Few Begin Yelling

 These few yelling drew more men out and within a matter of several minutes a large percentage of the dorm’s 192 men were on their concourses mocking the cab driver in his efforts to get his vehicle free from the mud.

 Despite the mass verbal encouragement and aid as well as accompanying recorded circus music and trumpeting, the driver could not move the cab. Furthermore, the cab driver’s efforts were illuminated for the amusement of the spectators by a student-directed spotlight.

 Heckling Increases

 The driver eventually got out of his car and immediately the heckling unanimously increased in intensity; and finally, when he was a few yards away from the dorm he was welcomed by cries of “HOOPEE—SPIT ON HIM SPIT ON HIM” and unprintable vulgarities.

 He asked for no help from Men’s Resdience # 2 and none was offered. He reached his brother on the telephone who in a few minutes arrived in his Jeep and succeeded in pulling the cab out of the field.

 Cheer Men On

 Meanwhile the women in the dormitories across the street were flashing lights and cheering the men on. However, they did not stop their encouragement after the cab was gone. The men having already acted as a mass with the encouragement of the women acted as a mob and stampeded into the street as animals would and in a frenzy yelled “PANTY RAID, PANTY RAID.”

 Although their numbers swelled, there was no leader. A mass action had been accomplished, a mob action had not, but it was not due to lack of potential.

 Questions Justification

 Now on the basis of these incidents, how do the residents of these particular buildings justify their actions? How do they justify them in light of their Christian ideals which preach brotherhood, respect for others, and help for those brothers in need?

 How can they justify their emotional and frenzied actions as students in an institution of higher learning, where theoretically, they are attempting to confront situations intelligently, objectively and maturely?

 Destroy Dignity

 And how according to the moral code of our western culture, which maintains the dignity of the individual, can the students of Marietta College justify their destruction of one man’s dignity and their own consequent self-degradation?

 And finally, in light of these student actions, how does Marietta College justify the following statement found on the rear cover of every Marietta College Bulletin: “Marietta College has been dedicated to the task of helping our nation prepare young people to become intelligent, useful members of our society. It further seeks to develop new leaders for a Christian democracy…….”

 John N. Gardner

Men’s Residence # 2



The Gardner Institute Turns Sweet 16

October 21, 2015huhnInsights0

JGheadshotHow would my readers have known that October 18, 2015, was an important marker for a now prominent (he immodestly and un-objectively writes) non-profit US higher education organization, if I didn’t tell you? Well, you wouldn’t have. But, yes, the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education quietly turned 16 on October 18, 2015.

I write as a co-founder of the Institute. Our other founder, in this case the Founding Mother, is Dr. Betsy O. Barefoot. I am Betsy’s husband. The Institute has given us both the opportunity to continue the work we began at the University of South Carolina’s National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition from 1986-99 but to take that work in new directions so as not to duplicate the work of the University’s Center. That was the original vision for our work suggested by our initial philanthropic supporter and we have maintained it to the present.

Now we can apply for a driver’s license. Using human development theory, I guess this means we are now in the full
bloom of adolescence. We are not yet fully mature, and still discovering and developing our potential.

We were established in 1999 as the Policy Center on the First Year of College, through the generosity of The Pew Charitable Trusts, and its then Senior Higher Education Program Officer, Russell Edgerton. Russ was launching a number of projects in this same period all designed to, in his words, “increase institutional accountability for student learning.” These projects included our Policy Center; and the National Survey for Student Engagement; the Higher Learning Commission’s Academic Quality Improvement Program; and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges Quality Enhancement Program. We were and are in good company.

From 1999 through 2008 we were supported by grants from The Pew Charitable Trusts, The Atlantic Philanthropies, Lumina Foundation for Education, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, and USA Funds. It was the hope of these initial investors that our work would become valued by our higher education colleagues and that they would support our work going forward thus making it self sustaining. That vision has been accomplished.

Our grants were initially housed, as were we, under the fiscal agency of the Brevard College Corporation in Brevard, North Carolina. This was because Betsy Barefoot and I did not have our own 501c3 organization. In 2007, upon the recommendation of the auditor of Brevard College we were spun off and recreated as an autonomous 501c3, registered as the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education. We have been functioning as such then for 8 years and have been supported by fees paid for our services by colleges and universities, overwhelmingly in the United States who engage in our processes and meetings to improve undergraduate excellence. We have been extremely fortunate to have the support of approximately 300 two and four-year colleges and universities which have engaged in one or more of our signature processes for improving undergraduate education.

A description of our work can be found on our website at While we engage in many customized improvement projects and meetings, we primarily provide three processes for increasing student success:

  1. Foundations of Excellence ® First-Year and Transfer Focus. This is a self-study, planning process to create a comprehensive plan to improve the entirety of the first-year or the transfer experience. High implementers of the FoE process have been shown to attain significant gains in first-to-second year retention. These two processes have been engaged in by 276 and 55 institutions respectively. See .
  2. Gateways to Completion, G2C. Begun in 2013 we are now in our third year of a national pilot with twelve institutions which undertake a comprehensive self study and improvement process of selected gateway courses and then launch revisions of these courses which include the use of our predictive analytics processes. Preliminary results from these institutions are showing significant reductions in the rates of D,W,F,I grades and improved retention rates. Naturally, we are very excited about this promising intervention and are now recruiting our second national cohort and a state cohort in Georgia. See
  3. Retention Performance Management, RPM. Started in Fall 2015 with eight colleges and universities and continuing with a second national cohort in Fall 2016. While we designed RPM originally for smaller, private institutions which may lack robust IR infrastructure, we are finding that multiple types of institutions are getting engaged including community colleges, regional comprehensive public universities, yes, small private colleges and even large public research universities. See

As we approach this milestone it is important for my readers to know that this work and the Institute’s overall success are not totally reliant on the founding mother and father of the organization. Instead, there are ten of us who have the privilege of providing these services for higher education and our bio sketches can be found at:

Collectively our work is governed by our Board of Directors whose biographical sketches can be found at:

Coming from my position as a tenured, full professor at a public, flagship, research university, to a soft money funded activity was for me a brave new world. When we started in October of 1999, all Betsy Barefoot and I knew was that we had a 14.5 month shelf life because that was the initial funding period from The Pew Charitable Trusts. Looking back, we acknowledge that we did not create the organization with an initial vision and plan for long-term institutionalization. That instead has occurred over the previous 16 years. Unlike my time at the University of South Carolina when I could count on some level of renewed funding from the legislature and students of South Carolina, each year in the Institute, we start again. There is no guaranteed funding and each day we have to earn our support and reputation. At times I think every tenured faculty member should experience this kind of existence as I have since I gave up my tenure with early retirement in 1999.

We sincerely thank all those who have believed and trusted in our work and thus made it possible and we look forward to a long-term future of service to the higher education community.

Of all the efforts we either know of or have tried ourselves to improve undergraduate education, what matters most?

September 22, 2015huhnInsights0

John N. Gardner

Three years ago I received a phone call from a special friend and colleague in higher education, President Leo Lambert of Elon University in North Carolina, inviting me and my wife and colleague, Betsy Barefoot, to join him in a book project. I didn’t realize it then but this was really the start of a process to encourage and enable me to join a really special group of good thinkers to make some decisions about what I and we think matters most in undergraduate education.

Leo was calling me to discuss a potential project that would provide a companion volume to an important book published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2004, Transforming A College, which was about the story of the transformation of Elon from a relatively little known, regional, private university to a highly esteemed, national, innovative university, now being studied and emulated by many others. This book was written by the noted higher education strategic planning expert and consultant, the late George Keller. About 100 pages, designed to be read by institutional senior leaders on a flight from New York to Chicago, the book enjoyed great success in terms of sales and wide use by campus governance groups, especially administrator and board retreats. Leo’s original idea was that it was time for an update on what had happened since this “transforming” and what could be the most important lessons learned and applicable to a more diverse array of institutions that provide higher education for undergraduates.

President Lambert put together a working group consisting of himself; a colleague from Elon, Professor of History Peter Felten; Charles Schroeder, a Senior Consultant then with Noel-Levitz; Betsy Barefoot and myself. After we thought through what we wanted to do, could do, and what might be publishable, we had the good fortune to be offered a contract by Jossey-Bass. This book will be published this spring, 2016. Peter Felten is the author of two previous Jossey-Bass books and has been the editorial leader of this project. He is also the immediate past President of POD, the Professional Organizational Development network and is an outstanding faculty development leader and student of undergraduate innovation. Betsy and I have had six other books published by Jossey-Bass and we are privileged to be able to publish with them again. Charles Schroeder is one of the most esteemed leaders of the student affairs profession, having been a former chief student affairs officer at four universities and one of the most able student retention consultants in the country. And Leo Lambert is one of the college presidents from my career whom I admire most. In addition to Leo and Peter being leaders at Elon, the rest of us have connections with the University. Charles has been a past consultant and advisor to one of his former colleagues who is chief student affairs office at Elon, Smith Jackson. Betsy and I have been involved with the University as parents of an Elon graduate and other improvement initiatives undertaken by the University. We are huge fans of the University and have great respect for its remarkable transformation.

Our work together on this project has reminded me again how important it is to work collegially with other close colleagues and fine minds, to ask the most important questions to frame how we might inform and inspire others. In my entire career I have had a multitude of opportunities to come to important conclusions, worthy of sharing more broadly, when I am faced with a task of preparing an article, lecture, proposal, or even a book. It is those kinds of tasks that have often proved most helpful to me to decide what I really think, believe and know.

In this case we spent a great deal of time talking about the diversity of American higher education and how that might influence what we could endorse as strategies for improving undergraduate education that would have the most applicability to the broadest range of higher educators and institutions. Naturally, we did not want to write a book only for one sector where what we were encouraging would apply to only a narrow range of institutional types. At one point we went through the brief exercise of adding up the number of years the five of us had of higher education experience: in public and private, two an four-year, open and selective institutions and the total was moving towards the 200 mark. That would suggest it took us a long time to talk through what we knew, had experienced, observed and what we thought we ought to share and argue for.

As our work proceeded we kept coming back to one question and I both share that now and urge you to pursue it yourself in some kind of collaborative exercise. That question is—of all the efforts we either know of or have tried ourselves to improve undergraduate education, what matters most? Given the variety and depth of our experiences in undergraduate innovation this was quite a sorting process. We also wanted to be able to not only achieve consensus, but provide our readers with a book focus and especially recommendations that would be manageable, achievable, practical, and sufficiently generic. So we ultimately chose six themes, six core conditions that we believed—and then went on to illustrate, matter most to improve undergraduate education. And we posit these beliefs no matter what are the challenges facing the viability of US undergraduate education.

So what did we choose? Well, we are about to share the answer to that with our publisher as our final manuscript will be submitted October 1 for a spring 2016 publication. And it feels so good to be getting this manuscript off and into production. I will write about this further, surely, after publication. But I wanted to alert my readers to this pending publication ahead of time.

Most importantly, I wanted to encourage replicating our author group’s process of coming together for rich dialogue, debate, analysis, sharing and produce your own answer to this same question: what matters most for improving undergraduate education? Then we can compare our conclusions in mid 2016. So let this be both a catalyst and an invitation to consider coming attractions. We know that what will matter more than our six core principles are yours. And if you haven’t become explicit about your own, we highly encourage you to do so. The results could be profound for you, the students you serve, and your institution.

I publicly state my appreciation for the leadership of Elon University in this project and for them extending me the privilege of participating in this process. We know that publishing is the currency of the academic realm and we are hopeful that this Jossey-Bass book of ours will gain some real traction and influence and that ultimately, you will be quoting either our six themes for what matters most and/or your own.

Write Our Own Future

March 16, 2015huhnInsights0

John N. Gardner

It is important to be able to point to current, real world events, to create teachable moments for our students.

Several weeks ago, President Obama, in what for me was one of the most memorable lines of his State of the Union speech, told the country it was time “to write our own future.” I say memorable because that was really what has stayed with me from that speech. Yes, there was much attention paid to what some commentators called the President’s defiant tone. I realize that affect (perceived as “tone”) is important. But what matters more to me is the substance of what he said.

And I think this idea of “write your own future” is a great way to characterize for students what the college experience is all about.

It is about a very personal process, personal to each student. We carry this to great extremes in US higher education because we allow our students so many different choices—I believe too many, but that’s another matter. But the end result is the students’ individual “pathways” (a current buzz word for those who would improve higher education) are vastly different and hence personal.

I even take this language literally. Students should be asked to first think and reflect about their future, but then to “write” about it, literally. Students aren’t doing nearly enough conventional writing. They think they know themselves best. What a perfect subject to be writing about. In fact, I am working on a project now to integrate so-called “college success” content into the teaching of writing. Write about themselves and their futures especially during the first year but then in successive periods too. Write about it in first-year seminar courses, English composition courses, any course where personal reflection and application is relevant. Write about it in journals, papers, customized, personal research. Write about it in the creation of text for electronic portfolios.

Writing something is a creative process. The writer is the creator. So the student, as the writer of her/his own future, is the creator. The student needs to own this creation. It is not that of their parents/friends, even the society. Not that we don’t influence the writing. We do. We should. But ultimately we need to get students to do the creating in an intentional process from which they own the outcomes. They hold themselves responsible.

Write your own future, is about personal planning—academic planning, life planning, family planning, business planning—and more. We have to teach our students more about how to go about this. Hence, one more argument for paying more attention to the beginning college experience.

The first year is the foundational period for: “write your own future.”

If we really believed in the importance of college as a process to “write our own future” we would be paying a lot more attention to the importance of academic advising. I do see some signals out there in the academy that “advising” is having a renaissance in terms of attention. Certainly big public universities are spending a fortune on data analytics to provide advisors with more information to better guide student decision making (writing their own future). The jury is out on whether the use of analytics will really result in substantially improved student progress, much as we all want that.

My point here is that we need to encourage students to make good use of the freedom we give them, their locus of control. And I think this notion of “write our own future” is a captivating metaphor to do so. Students remember more than we give them credit for.

One of the few things in life that I am really sure of is that college enabled me to write my own future.

It’s High Time I Wrote!

March 2, 2015huhnInsights0

John N. Gardner

I have truly been delinquent about staying current with our Gardner Institute blog. January 20 was my last posting. My birthday is February 2, much more notably known as Groundhog’s Day. I emerged from my hole in the ground, multiple times that day, saw my shadow each time, but did not return for hibernation.

Because I am so far behind I am not going to comment in depth today on one topic, but rather more in passing on a number of them.

In January the non-profit organization, which I lead, the Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education, hosted two back-to-back professional development conferences in California. Conference hosting is not one of our signature lines of work but we do engage in this occasionally. This activity in particular reminded me of the first conference I hosted in the First-Year Experience series in California. That was in 1986 and it gave a tremendous further “kick” or “bump” to the national movement known by its acronym, “FYE.” In my position then at the University of South Carolina, I had hosted the founding FYE Annual Conferences in 1982,83,84, and 85. Our attendance was 173, 351, 500—and I don’t remember 85. But I made a crucial—and smart—decision to host two versions of the conference in 1986—an “East” and a “West” version and that year we had 1600 attendees. The FYE West Conference was co-hosted by the University of California Irvine, thanks to our friendship and partnership there with a prominent scholar, Professor John Whiteley. So this January, I got a chance for West Redux, déjà vu, and both these meetings were very successful, again co-hosted with UCI Irvine where my long-time friends John Whiteley and Thomas Parham extended their hospitality. One of the meetings was a new one for us, a Retention Symposium, in which we offered a facilitative process to help institutions return home with a concrete plan to address retention challenges. We plan to repeat this meeting in Asheville, N.C. on June 8-9, 2015. The second meeting was our third annual offering of an institute for senior academic and student affairs’ leaders on partnerships for student success. California is so important as a bell weather state and higher ed economy. Thought leaders ignore it at their own peril.

In early February, I returned to the 34th Annual Conference on The First-Year Experience, this year in Dallas. Some 1800 attendees came from 17 nations. The meeting was as vibrant as ever, still drawing a huge percentage of “first-time attendees” which suggests continuing new lifeblood for the movement. The 35th annual conference will be held next February in Orlando. Long may it live.

At this 34th Annual Conference, it was announced that the leader of the University’s first-year programs and conferences, Stuart Hunter, will retire this June 30. Stuart has been my most able successor and has overseen the further evolution of the initiatives I founded to levels of support, institutionalization, impact and replication that I was not able to attain in my period of leadership. I am very proud of her accomplishments and she will be leaving these activities so important to the wider higher education community in very, very good shape—and in very good hands. Her two most senior colleagues, who lead the instructional activities and the Center’s conferences, publishing and research activities are, respectively, Dan Friedman and Jennifer Keup. These are outstanding professionals whom I am also proud to call my colleagues. They assure the kind of continuity that all of us who respect these programs would want and expect. I urge my readers to reach out and offer their continuing support to Dan and Jennifer.

And, the undeclared phase of the 2016 presidential election is underway. It appears as if higher education will be an issue. I am saddened to see the attacks from Republicans in North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Illinois, on university “centers” whose missions these conservative leaders do not appreciate (in NC where three such centers are being recommended for closure) and/or on public university budgets, most notably by Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. The tension between our more liberal campuses and more conservative political leaders is a long standing theme in the history of US higher education. But recent events are testing the strength of academic freedom, and perhaps ultimately tenure. We are being forced to adapt and change. Our cultures are becoming more “corporate.” I am confident though that these great universities are sufficiently resilient that they will outlast these current foes.

Spring can’t come soon enough in this winter of winters for my eastern US readers. And some of us would say the same for the 2016 presidential election!

I will return in less than a month!