John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

“Mobilize.” What Might That Mean for Your Work—My Work?

January 23, 2013John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

I write this on the weekend of our annual celebration of Martin Luther King. Of all our most celebrated national heroes Dr. King certainly has to be the most gifted in terms of his ability to “mobilize” others. We can’t even begin to think retrospectively about his contributions to the Civil Rights movement without thinking about how he mobilized so many of us—and could still if we allowed him the chance.

And naturally, I am thinking about the connection between Dr. King and the fact that the very day I write this we are inaugurating for the second time, our first African American President, a man also very gifted in mobilizing. I along with many Americans note of course, that the ability to mobilize is a gift that has to be combined with the ability to execute.

As I look at my own career, I think that probably my greatest contribution was to the mobilization of my fellow higher educators to pay more attention to what I described for them as “the freshman year experience.” That was back in 1982 when I first started using that language. It was powerful. It was evocative. It created a movement where for the past 32 years, for example, about a hundred thousand higher educators have come to conferences now called “The First-Year Experience.” And, more importantly, the language mobilized higher educators to take actions to improve the success of new students. So part of mobilizing has to involve the right language to capture attention, to motivate, and to focus.

The same week of this posting I visited for the first time, with my wife, our country’s Pearl Harbor Memorial, coincidentally, in the state from which the President we are inaugurating today hails. This site is not only that of one of the worst tragedies of our history. But it is also the site of an event that mobilized us as a nation as nothing had before or since. In comparison, for example, the attack on Fort Sumter, in 1861, exactly 80 years before, while it mobilized two distinct regions and armies, was very different from the outcome of December 7, 1941. This “day of infamy” mobilized us to extraordinary unity, action, courage, sacrifice, single-minded national purpose. Mobilization is possible. And when we really experience it, it makes almost anything else also possible.

An organization that has been extremely influential in my professional work is Lumina Foundation for Education. The non-profit higher education organization that I lead was the recipient of two grants from Lumina Foundation during the period 2003-2008 that enabled our non-profit entity to “mobilize”, to date, 245 two and four-year institutions to make a major investment of time, energy and resources to create something they didn’t have previously: an actual plan, a new vision, for how to make first-year and new students more successful. And for the high implementers of this plan, increased retention has been realized. The process, which Lumina Foundation made possible, that does this is called Foundations of Excellence®.

I am thinking particularly about Lumina Foundation because they have just released their new Strategic Plan for 2013-16. And “mobilizing” is one of their core goals. We all need to be thinking about this concept and how it could apply to our work, at both the unit, and the institutional levels. I quote from the Lumina Strategic Plan:

“Mobilizing higher education institutions and systems to increase the adoption of data- and evidence-based policies, partnerships and practices that closes attainment gaps for underserved students and improve overall completion rates.”

So what might it mean for your work, and my work, if we became better at “mobilizing”?

A previous landmark education reform paper, “A Nation at Risk”, released in 1983, argued that the threats to America from inadequate educational attainment was as great a risk as if we were threatened by attack from a foreign power.

I think those threats are much greater now, given the vast increases in income inequality and relative educational disadvantage we see in our people today.

What are some of the common elements of effective mobilization?

One of the foundational steps in “mobilizing” has to be for all our stakeholders to realize what is at stake from lack of mobilizing to address our unsatisfactory college retention and completion goals. The focus all too often is on what does something cost. In this instance, the more compelling argument is what is this costing us NOT to mobilize.

People have to perceive some threat to their self, unit, institutional, and national interests.

People have to perceive some potential significant gains to their self, unit, institutional and national interests?

People have to perceive that others think like they do. They are not alone. They are legitimized. They are mainstream.

People have to be presented with a common script that lays out this threat and potential gains.

Leaders at all levels of the institution have to be using exactly this same script, mantra.

The mobilizing language can not be used too often. It needs to be constantly repeated and embedded in all forms of institutional communications’ channels.

The mobilizing language must not appear to be the leadership focus du jour. It must endure over a sustained period of time and transcend particular administrations. This means that governing boards play a key role to “stay the course.”

The call to mobilize has to lay out an aspirational vision. As stated in the Bible: “where there is no vision, the people shall perish.” The vision has to move beyond the status quo and must not simply call to a return to some former era and state of affairs that is highly unlikely can be created again. This means for example, that we have to focus on the students we have, not the ones we would rather have, or think we used to be like.

This aspirational vision must be simultaneously universal, abstract, but concrete and applicable to all stakeholders.

The mobilization envisions that all will be winners/gainers.

The mobilization calls for partnerships to achieve the vision. Much as we Americans love the notion of The Lone Ranger, there is no rescue here from a one leader driven movement.

The mobilization effort has to invite people to do something very concrete. It has to be brought home to the individual/unit level. I remember when I was a little boy in the early 1950’s talking to one of my grandmothers about her life during World War II. She had been mobilized. She understood the vision. She had applied the script and mobilized friends and neighbors to sit in her parlor and fold thousands of bandages. She and her friends volunteered thousands of hours in local hospitals caring for convalescing troops. Even though she had experienced the fulfilling roles of spouse and mother, it was very clear to me even as a 7-9 year old boy, that the most fulfilling period of her life had been during World War II when she had been mobilized.

I believe that mobilizing towards increasing student success outcomes can and must take place at all levels of our colleges and universities. Yes, those of us at small unit levels, and who are not the most senior leaders, we can still mobilize at our own levels. We can have a vision. We can have and use the script. We can use that repeatedly over long periods of time. We can stay focused. Our focus does not have to be exclusively the administrative idea du jour.  We can initiate and sustain partnerships. We can demonstrate how others, other units, will benefit from partnerships with us. We can create more winners/gainers, and not just for our own units. I learned these lessons when I first became a university academic department head. Admittedly, that was not a senior, institutional level position. But I realized that the greatest gift we have by working in the academy are levels of personal, professional and academic freedom that are largely unparalleled in other work organizations. What a waste it would be not to use that freedom to mobilize.

My own career has taught me many lessons. But a foundational one is that I could not have accomplished nearly as much without first mobilizing, to the extent I could accomplish that at any given point in my career at whatever level I found myself, from a department head to Vice Chancellor to an educational organization CEO; from a part-time adjunct instructor to distinguished professor; from a single campus administrator to a system administrator; from undergraduate student to graduate student to an international public intellectual. We all are given the requisite freedoms within our respective spheres of influence at any times in our career to mobilize within our operational environments.

The weekend of the Martin Luther King celebration reminds me that in the academy, that the published language of mobilization, is the currency of the realm. This is, in part, what Dr. King did. He wrote. And then he spoke from his texts. And his writings were published, quoted, read, reread. So we higher educators, who may be most influential at mobilizing, must write and share with others our language of mobilization.

On a very personal level, I will be moving on in 2013 to my newest line of mobilizing focus, that of the huge need, within my cherished “first-year experience”, to improve student performance in high failure rate, “gateway” courses. What are you going to focus on for your own professional mobilization efforts? None of us can get anything done on any level without engaging in foundational mobilization.

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