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.

What Would YOU Do if Only You Had The Time and the Money…?

John N. Gardner

I just finished a week’s vacation in which I just flunked setting my work aside. Instead, other than my conversations with my very smart wife, Betsy Barefoot, I found the most stimulating thing I did mentally was to generate, share, and exchange thoughts with one of my colleagues in our non-profit Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education, Dr. Drew Koch. We were corresponding about a concept paper we are putting together for a foundation. I find at age 67 and 44 years into my career there are few exercises that I find more stimulating for what creativity and capacity for big idea generation I have left (actually, I find I have a lot left and am much better at this than I was even 10-12 years ago).
copyright 2011, Laura K. Huhn

I will share an experience I had that I recommend to others, hopefully including you, dear reader, as a source of stimulation for the big idea—the big idea for you to contribute to improve American higher education. And any of this could do it. As my colleagues in my work group say: “If John can do it, anyone can.”

I was introduced to this way of thinking by a professional godfather and mentor that I was/am priviliged to have had, Russ Edgerton, former President of the American Association for Higher Education, and former senior higher education program grants officer for The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Russ and I ran into each other at a conference in Washington, D.C in January of 1998. He honored me by attending a session I was doing. And after the session he asked me if we could have a cup of coffee together. During the conversation that followed he asked me: “John, if you had one to five million dollars, and one to five years to do anything you always wanted to do but never before had the time or the money to do, to improve American higher education, what would you most want to do?”

Well, anyone that knows me would assert that I am rarely speechless. But I was in response to Russ’s question. Patient and wise leader he is, Russ cut me some slack and suggested we get together in another couple of months to resume the conversation and to give me time to come up with an appropriate response.

We met two months later and I still didn’t have a response. So the Foundation made a planning grant to make it possible for me to plan the answer to Russ’s question. In turn, that made possible the first grant from The Trusts to lay the foundation for what has been me and my wife, Betsy Barefoot’s, professional work since 1999.

I didn’t realize then but the structure of the question, and its focus, would return to me time and time again, as the mental parameter for regenerating creativity to make possible new work to improve American higher education.

Thank goodness we live in a country that has this unique structure of the private foundation, a non-profit organization to invest and spend the largesse accumulated by leaders of capitalism. The enormously disproportionate business acumen and successes of the Carnegie, Ford, Rockefeller, Pew, Gates, Walton, leaders of US business, have, in turn, made possible a myriad of improvement strategies for our education system. And my wife and I have been greatly honored and privileged to be the recipients of such support to make new initiatives possible.

So I find myself still asking 13 years later: “What if I had XX dollars and XX years what would I like to do about……………? Actually, I never start with a dollar amount or range. For me it is always about some problem I want to attack and have the immodesty and confidence to think that I could somehow address and improve if only I could win this investor’s confidence.

And so I am still at it. What are the big problems? What do I know about them? What could I do about them? What would I like to do about them? What would my vision be? Who could I get to go along with this vision? How could I create many other winners who ultimately end up owning and doing the real work that matters?

One person can always make a difference.

One big idea can always make a difference.

All you have to do is allow yourself to dream, ask, and lay it out to a sympathetic ear.

So what would you like to do if only you had the time and money—to improve our higher education system? For me, that has been, and still is, the basic question. This is for the public good, not mine, although this sure is a lot of fun.