John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

“Back At You”

John N. Gardner

I have a dear colleague who uses the phrase “back at you” or “I’ll be back at you” all the time. I have come to understand it is an informal expression of good bye with someone whom you interact with frequently and the message is that the recipient should expect to hear from or see the sender relatively soon. In the context of this blog then what I am trying to communicate is that after a brief hiatus I am “back at you”!

When I look back at my history of blog postings I see that it would appear that I have taken a summer vacation in that my most recent posting was May 5, 2014, about a month ago. None of my readers though have communicated that they missed my thoughts! Should I carry on anyway? I have decided to do so.

Most of the elapsed time has not been spent in vacation. A blog is a real commitment. And I have tried to make it such. I do have other commitments that I must put in place first and those have gotten in the way. I regret that, mostly. I did have a partial week of vacation at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C. and I do not regret that. If you haven’t visited what many South Carolinians refer to as their “Holy City” you should. Its historic preservation is outstanding and it is a foodie’s paradise. And for the arts aficionado there are few festivals to surpass the Spoleto Festival, a three decades plus esteemed imitation/replication of the longer festival of the same name in Spoleto, Italy. The US version is 17 days, late May early June every year, of plays, art, opera, jazz, classical orchestral, dance, you name it. The city fills with tourists from all over the country and even The New York Times covers the Festival.

Reading the local press has to be a shock for visitors from blue states. This week there was coverage of local political candidates who were trying to prove they were the more conservative Republican. And what really took the cake was another flag dispute, this time over a Confederate naval battle flag that has been discovered displayed in The Citadel chapel. The Citadel is a state supported, co-ed, military college. The administration is refusing to remove the flag and a Charleston Democratic City Council member is threatening to cut a $950,000 annual appropriation to the college.  And a prominent member of the South Carolina General Assembly is about to become the new President of the public College of Charleston, a politician with impeccable conservative creds, a history of running a business selling Confederate memorabilia to tourists, and no higher education leadership history. The faculty have, courageously, voted no confidence. But so what? There will be no rescinding this presidential appointment. Anyone who says that faculty don’t need tenure in red states just doesn’t understand the threats to academic freedom. But I don’t care. I love South Carolina anyway. It was so good to me and I it. And I fit in just fine in spite of my liberal values.

When I last wrote it was about the end of the academic term and what we could be saying to our students. I had to put that into practice in a commencement address I delivered on May 7. I also delivered another kind of “commencement” address, also a homily that I delivered in a wedding ceremony that my wife and I officiated in, also in South Carolina. Marrying people is really fun. We might even want to do this again. And it is truly is a commencement! It is also a cause and occasion for reflection on the meaning of our lives and for making new commitments and renewing long standing ones.

As I look towards the rest of my summer, the next thing I have on my professional plate is a first visit for my wife and I to the small but extremely geopolitically important Middle Eastern nation of Qatar to which I am en route as I write this posting. Qatar has one nationally funded university, Qatar University, which like most universities admits first-year students. And they face many of our challenges in terms of under preparation and under motivation of our students, particularly males. The University respects US higher education and is seeking regional accreditation with the US Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Qatar University has been participating all year in my non-profit organization’s Foundations of Excellence, a self-study and planning process to produce an action plan for improvement, when once executed to a high degree significantly improves retention. The University’s work in our process has been some of the very best I have seen across our 256 institutions. It has been a privilege to advise them in this process. I am sure this visit will lead to at least a subsequent posting.

Other highlights of my summer will be:

  1. Finishing the recruitment and selection process for the 2014-15 cohort of Foundations of Excellence colleges and universities. Our application deadline is July 15.
  2. Finishing the recruitment and selection process for our second national cohort for Gateways to Completion, (G2C), our process for improving student performance in high failure rate/high enrollment courses. Our application deadline is August 1.
  3. Finishing the recruitment and selection process for our newest initiative, RPM, Retention Performance Management. This was designed by us especially to serve smaller and private institutions that had not previously worked with us; but we are finding response very strong also from our larger public institutional colleagues. Our application deadline is August 15.
  4. Continuing and completing the design for both G2C and RPM, both works in progress.
  5. Attending the annual summer Academic Affairs meeting of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, a very close collaborating partner for our Institute.
  6. Attending seven weeks of wonderful, classical music concerts in our adopted home town of Brevard, N.C. This is the location for the 77 year old Brevard Music Center and Summer Festival. The concerts provided by three different resident orchestras and guest artists are held outdoors in a covered theater that seats 1800 on a bucolic 180 acre campus.
  7. Planning and hosting a joint birthday party for my wife and me, coupled with a “retirement” celebration for her. Betsy Barefoot is the founding mother/co-founder with me of the non-profit John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education. She is retiring from her administrative duties from the Institute but will remain engaged with us from her position of Senior Scholar. She will also continue her work as an independent scholar, writer, editor, and speaker. I do not plan to follow her into retirement.
  8. Enjoying the wonderful summer climate of the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, where we moved to escape the blazing heat and humidity of central South Carolina.

I promise I will write and post pieces on this blog periodically in addition to the above activities. And I would welcome your response(s).

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