John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

What Do You Give Your Students to Read—to Get Them to Discover What Matters Most?

Recently I was asked by one of my publishers to complete an author survey. And one of the questions was truly impossible for me to answer as requested. It read something to the effect “what was the book that has influenced you most significantly? What I found impossible was to choose one! I found the exercise interesting and worthwhile not only because of the sheer number of books that I would so classify as having been of “most significant influence”, but what those books were and especially what time of life was I exposed to these written ideas/experiences, and how this would help form my ideas on social justice.

So, they began coming to me almost as a crescendo.

There were two books in my first-year of college, when I was doing terribly on the academic front and was lonely, homesick lovesick. And they were mandated by one of my first-term professors to read and to be the subjects of an oral examination if I wanted to raise my final grade in Speech 101 from an F to a D. Most valuable D I ever received. He had me read David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1953), a book really for academics but one that sold well beyond that for laypeople. Riesman, a Harvard professor, lawyer and sociologist, one of the greatest of the 20th century, and also a scholar of the American college and university presidency. The Lonely Crowd was an argument that America produces two kinds of people: the Inner Directed Man and the Outer Directed Man (the direction being in reference to who and what are our influencers, inner vs outer oriented stimuli. My professor wanted me to examine that question for myself. What kind of person was I—was I becoming—or could become? Riesman analyzed a number of our culture’s favorite stories for children and he forced me to think about how I had been influenced by the stories I had read as a child. And nineteen years after being made to read his book, Riesman wrote me an unsolicited letter in 1980 raising some questions with me based on an article of mine he had read in the Journal of Higher Education, about one of my—and as it turns out—his favorite subjects. Riesman was also the founder of Harvard’s first-year seminar, in 1959, two years before I became a first-year student.

The other book was Escape from Freedom, by Erich Fromm, a German psychoanalyst, who escaped from the Third Reich and wrote a compelling analysis of why the German people, at the time the most literate of any of the European democracies, had voluntary given up their freedoms in 1933. The book was really about what for some of us is the burden of freedom, the challenge of making decisions on our own. And there I was, as the professor knew full well, a young man who had abused his freedom by overcutting this class, six times in fact. Why do some college students, for example, voluntarily decide to give up a number of their freedoms to join certain groups that make many of their decisions for them (such as with whom to associate), groups especially like fraternities and sororities? This book invited me to consider the uses, the choices, albeit the abuses, I was making with my freedom. And I concluded that I needed to reconsider some of those choices. And it was several years later, also while in college, that I read Fromm’s perennial best seller, The Art of Loving, which argues that before anyone can love anyone else, they have to be capable of self-love, meaning self-respect.

And then there was my reading of Plato’s Republic in the fall of my junior year, in a political philosophy class. We examined some of the most important questions that any society has to constantly be in the process of deciding: who should rule? Plato was having Socrates argue that philosophers should be kings. And the related question, that my whole adult life has been in pursuit of: what is justice? By then I was getting the idea that what was really happening to me in college is that I was learning that the questions can often be more important than the answers. To have a meaningful life you have to be asking and pursuing the right questions. In this same course, on the day of class that the professor was going to lead us through Plato’s argument about “who should rule” our class was interrupted by the shocking news of the assassination of President Kennedy on November 20th, 1963.

And then also that fall, in a course on Transcendental American writers, I was taking a very deep dive in the complete works of essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson. I have never been the same since reading Self Reliance. Thank goodness. I was really ready to receive Emerson’s call to intellectual individualism. And I was so fortunate I had a professor who knew just how to do that so skillfully. I didn’t go to college expecting that I would come to love Emersonian prose but that’s exactly what happened. The course influenced me to do a research project to ascertain what might have been the influence on Emerson of New England Unitarianism. And I thought that to understand this question and possibility even more thoroughly I should try to grapple with it experientially. I did so be joining a small handful of other congregants who attended the weekly service of the Marietta, Ohio Unitarian Church. I learned that that faith was all about what my college experience had become: a search for the truth, my truths, which were being discovered by me through reading and interaction with the interpreters of those readings, my professors. What powers they had over me. And I allowed them to help me discover my own powers for discovery, and then to influence others.

In my junior year, I took an elective biology course in a course titled “Conservation.” We were required to reach Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring; the work that is generally credited with launching the now more than fifty-year-old “environmental” movement. Before this book, I had not given one thought to what I and my fellow men and women were doing to our environment. This work really changed me.

In my senior year, I read Joseph Heller’s first novel, Catch 22. Sadly, Heller was a one author great thinker. Try as hard as he did in a succession of following books, all of which I faithfully read, none of them did for me, let alone any of the critics, like what Catch 22 did. The first time I read Catch 22, I really didn’t get it, the “it” being the power of his satire of the insanity of bureaucratic life and thinking, as personified by Heller in the US Army of World War II. But two years later when I was on active duty in the US Air Force, and read Catch 22 again, then it hit me. He had finally showed me how bureaucracies work, often making some of their members literally crazy, by the non-rationality of some of their arbitrary rules and processes.

So, as I was recalling what I had read of greatest influence, and when I did that reading and thinking, that all these greatest influencers had come during undergraduate school. How could this be? This doesn’t mean I stopped reading upon graduating from college! Absolutely not. But I can’t think of anything that I have read since college that had the same level of formative influence on my most important understandings—of myself, my work, my culture, my role in society, human group and individual behavior—you name it. I can only conclude then that I was in a unique period of openness to new ideas, to being influenced, to self-discovery. But that openness had to be facilitated, nourished, encouraged, reinforced. And my professors and a few fellow students were the ones who did so. I was developmentally ready, hungry even. And the college experience was there for me, ready for me, able to develop me in only ways that it could. I am so thankful.

I have often asked my workshop audiences what they remember reading that had some influence during their first-year of college. Almost to a person, each group member can recall something specific. Maybe this is just because I work in the world of the academic bubble. These people liked being in college and so they have stayed in it for their adult lives. They truly were influenced. I know that once I experienced this influence I never wanted to leave it.

I have had much less success asking my students, particularly first-year students, what it is they read before college that has influenced them. They struggle with this, in part because no one has asked them this before.

In conclusion, I ask you: what were the great written works that influenced you? And what do you have your students read with the hope that this work and your guidance of them to and through it will be of significant influence? I know, it took me a long time here to get to my question. And the question for you should be much more important than the answers I have offered, just as has been the lasting impact of some of the questions I learned to ask in college, especially: what is justice? My whole adult professional life has been devoted to that question.


April 12, 2017Julie HellerInsights0


Recently I was privileged to be part of a five-person author team to both have a book published and to do a presentation on the main ideas of this book as a “featured session” at the annual meeting of the Higher Learning Commission, our nation’s largest regional higher education accreditor, in Chicago, on April 1, 2017. No joke. Not about April Fool’s Day.

The book is The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most; Peter Felten, John Gardner, Leo Lambert, Charles Schroeder, and Betsy Barefoot; Jossey-Bass, 2016.

Our leaders for this project, Peter Felten and Leo Lambert, Professor of History and President, respectively, of Elon University, prepared questions for each of us authors to speak to in this session. I want to share below one of the questions that was directed to me and the answer that I prepared in advance to offer.

If the same question were put to you, I wonder what your response would be about “The Big Disconnects.”

John, our book is filled with example after example of uplifting good practices across a wide spectrum of institutions.  We know what constitutes good practice.  And yet we know hundreds of institutions are beset with shockingly low graduation rates, very poor retention rates, and are revolving doors of failure.  You have been in this business for more than forty years.  What are the big disconnects in American higher education?


  1. Colleges not designed for students we now have.
  2. Faculty rewards system not designed to reward/motivate what majority of students need most—more focus on teaching and availability to students.
  3. Students preferred learning styles not in sync with ways majority of faculty teach.
  4. Focus on retention has led to focus on the margins: not the heart of the academic experience, gateway courses, where we have the greatest number of student failures.
  5. Faculty are viewed as source/cause of many problems rather than the solution.
  6. Our values are the big disconnect: we have adopted larger societal corporate values and more of our thinking is about making money than making—-Students—learn, grow, change, aspire, and lead.
  7. Many of us are looking for the panacea, the silver bullet. There aren’t any.
  8. We are often looking outside the academy to companies to sell us what they call “solutions” usually involving expensive technology.
  9. We need to focus on what matters most—what you think on your campus, your unit—is most likely to achieve your institutional mission:







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

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

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

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

Trustees should care about the first year because…

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

*student learning and satisfaction

*institutional academic and financial viability and stability

*retention/graduation rates and prestige rankings

*expectations for student behaviors in and out of the curriculum

*athletic success

*student safety

*student abuse of alcohol

*success and behaviors of fraternity and sorority members

*town/gown relations

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

*and many more!

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

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

So what do trustees need to know about?

You need to be continually updated on, especially:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 13, 2017Julie HellerInsights0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming…a World Boycott…?

Coming…a World Boycott…?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best wishes……

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


Tenure: Look to Those Who Have It

February 22, 2017Julie HellerInsights0

Tenure: Look to Those Who Have It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Massacring People and Meaning:

Why Liberal Education is Vital for Democracy and Our Very Existence

by Dr. Drew Koch

Massacres are as American as apple pie.

Unfortunately. And sadly. But seriously.

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

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

Massacres eradicated Native Americans who resisted Manifest Destiny.

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

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

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

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

And on, and on, and on . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Things Will Come from Campus Unrest: They Have Before

February 15, 2017Julie HellerInsights0

Good Things Will Come from Campus Unrest: They Have Before

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 7, 2017Julie HellerInsights0

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

By John N. Gardner

February 7, 2017

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

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

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