John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

A Guiding Framework

John Gardner

Long ago I learned in my own liberal arts education that the questions are often more important than the answers. My day to day work at this point in my career is guiding colleges and universities through a set of questions that my non-profit organization calls “performance indicators”. These are  specifically targeted questions to deduce the institution’s current level of performance vis a vis a set of aspirational standards for excellence in the beginning college experience. The overall guiding questions are: what is excellence in the beginning college experience? And what would your institution have to do to be performing at a level of excellence (as opposed say to a somewhat dumbed down question like what you you have to do to simply retain students).

Why would institutions pursue such questions? To create an action plan to improve the beginning college experience—and then to implement that plan. Most institutions don’t have such a plan. That’s because they simply develop “programs” and don’t take the time to ask the right questions.

I trust you get this point after this introduction: I like “guiding questions”. And in that vein, this weekend there was an article in the Sunday New York Times (January 1, 2012) business section entitled “Even a Giant Can Learn to Run.”The article was about the “relentless progress” of IBM over the past decade and focused especially on the leadership of the outgoing IBM President, Samuel J. Palmisano.


The article described four questions which comprise the President’s “guiding framework”:

  • Why would someone spend their money with you?
  • Why would somebody work for you?
  • Why would society allow you to operate in their defined geography—their country?
  • And why would somebody invest their money with you?

Let’s quickly revise these questions to any campus situation at the unit or institutional level.

  • Why would (should) a student, his/her family/government spend their money with you?
  • Assuming a properly credentialed and experience higher educator had the option of asking: why would he/she want to work for you? What is so special about working for you? How are you going to develop this employee and invest in him/her?
  • Why would the marketplace, your state system or whatever system your institution may be a member of, allow you to operate in the first place? What value added do you bring? How is society somehow better off because you exist as a unit or institution?
  • And why would a donor, alum, foundation invest in you? What potential do you have to move to the next level? What might be the return on investment? How could you reward the intrinsic satisfaction of the investor?

I have long believed that great leaders, at all levels, have a “guiding framework”, and the same with great colleges and universities.

I think the beginning of a new year is a great time to start out deciding or reaffirming what are your guiding questions. These are far more likely to pay off than nebulous “resolutions”.

So what are your guiding questions?

Next week is my 45th anniversary of being a member of the higher education profession and surely I will write a blog about that. This reminds me of how I got started asking guiding questions and how far they have taken me.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


4 + = eleven