John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Higher Education Innovators (Like Me) Are Made Not Born

John Gardner

This blog is prompted by fact that I am beginning to get my thoughts together for remarks I have to make with my wife, Dr. Betsy Barefoot, on the occasion of our being presented with an award in a month or so. This is one of these late career awards that some of us are fortunate to receive while we are in good health. This is an occasion for doing some reflection that would present an argument that what Betsy and I did wasn’t really all that unique and that others can do the same kinds of things, have the same kind of impact—if—if—if—-they have the institutional support to pursue the innovative ideas that they create.

Rather than go into the particulars of this actual recognition, what I want to do is lay out a few points I would like to make to argue that in my experience I have found that higher education innovators do what they do because they have been “made” and not born—into being innovative. In other words, their contributions are more likely to be explained by how others shaped and influenced them, and in my case, in particular, how the higher education institution itself enables innovation.

I had the good fortune to work for one great university for approximately 30 years. I came there as a “nobody” but left as somebody (in terms of being nationally and internationally recognized). I couldn’t have done anything to effect this transition had not my university enabled me. So what did it do (as opposed to what did I do?) 

  • The University gave me great personal and intellectual freedom.
  • And more specifically academic freedom. I was working in a very conservative region and without academic freedom I would never have been able to keep my job. I’m absolutely positive of that.
  • Powerful, older, wiser leaders at the University reached out to me in my youth to mentor and encourage me.
  • Mentors opened the door for me and offered me opportunities and positions I would not have obtained on my own.
  • My presidents, provosts, and deans were sincerely interested themselves in what actually happened in the classroom, what professors did, pedagogical innovations, and especially in the experiences of students. They cared about more than just money, power, and prestige, both individually and institutionally.
  • My leaders did not bash the faculty, in contrast to some administrators I have known. At my university they actually WERE the faculty (in that they either came out of the faculty and/or they still held faculty appointments). We did not have a we/they culture.
  • Tenure and promotion policies were flexible enough to reward me for pursuing certain educational pathways and practices for which there were no or few precedents.
  • My reporting officials allowed me to stay the course, stay focused on a line of work that initially no one knew would pay off.
  • My bosses were serious when they said they wanted their faculty to pursue careers of international distinction. They provided us platforms to do our thing(s) for years and years and years (30 of them).
  • My bosses always knew and supported work that was good for both the individual faculty innovator and the university.
  • My bosses were willing to invest faculty development resources in younger, high potential developing faculty like me. These investments made me a great teacher. I wasn’t born that way.
  • My leaders were willing to let me take risks. We didn’t know in advance that what I was proposing would pay off.
  •  We had a culture where professional staff, including business affairs, personnel, and student affairs, were also willing to invest in shaping and supporting the careers of promising faculty innovators. Those colleagues made me a much better administrator than I would have been otherwise.
  •  My leadership believed that we faculty had a responsibility to be members of an international community of scholars with whom we should share our work and our university. International work was highly encouraged and supported.
  • My leaders always reminded me for whom I ultimately worked: the people of South Carolina, and that what I was doing better make a difference for them. And it did. And does.
  •  And, finally, just as I have written about as a need for first-year students, the people I worked for knew that to develop a younger innovator, you had to provide what Nevitt Sanford so aptly phrased back in the 60’s as: “challenge and support.”

All of these institutional qualities are replicable and will produce more educational innovators, who, in turn, will be made because they weren’t born that way. For my readers who have already arrived, what they need to do now is return the gift. For my readers who are still works in progress, they need to do whatever they can to get themselves in environments like I describe above. I maintain that colleges and universities must create and sustain these kinds of cultures to initiate and sustain innovation. It just doesn’t happen all on its own.

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