John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Exhibit A: How to Sustain an Innovation – Forty Years Old and Going Stronger Than Ever

November 16, 2012John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

I reached a real milestone in my professional life this week, which also represented an even more important milestone for my university, the University of South Carolina. I refer to the 40th anniversary of the University 101 course, “The Student in The University”, three credits, offered since the fall of 1972. The anniversary was noted with a special reception hosted by the University’s President and his wife, Harris and Patricia Pastides. Not only were past accomplishments recognized and celebrated, but important views of the future of this innovation were offered.

This was a milestone for me because I was in the first cohort of University faculty and staff who first taught this course that beginning fall offering, 1972. This was a truly transformative life changing experience for me. Two years later I became the first faculty director of the course, a position in which I served for 25 years until my non “retirement” in 1999.

This anniversary celebration is worth noting in a blog posting because of the tremendous impact this course has had on the rest of American higher education and that of many other countries as well.

University 101 has been the archetypal prototype for now what are known generically as “first-year seminars”, or “college success” or “student success” or “FYE” courses. This course type in many adapted forms is now offered in approximately 90% of the regionally accredited colleges and universities in the United States, and a number of other countries as well, especially Canada.

University 101 and all its knock-off versions have been offered for literally millions of college students.

A wide body of empirical research has determined multiple positive student outcomes associated with participation in the course, including:

  • enhanced retention rates
  • enhanced graduation rates
  • greater likelihood of seeking assistance, interacting with faculty and staff outside of class, joining co-curricular groups, and participating in on-campus activities outside the classroom

University 101 was the launching point for the highly influential conference series on The First-Year Experience, now in their 32nd year of offering.

University 101 and the resulting FYE conferences, in turn, were the launching pads for the establishment of the University’s National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.

The Center has had many accomplishments and influences but most would agree that its greatest influence has been the creation of a scholarly literature base through the production and dissemination of a very substantial number of monographs and books, and its flagship publication: the blind, refereed Journal of the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.

The net effect of all these outcomes is that the beginning college experience and its new students have become a much, much higher priority for higher education policy makers, resource allocators, and rank and file practitioners. A whole new field of professional endeavor within the academy has been created, known universally as “the first-year experience.”

The idea for the course was the brainchild of the University’s 23rd President, Thomas F. Jones. But this concept has been sustained by every USC President, and Provost, since its inception. University 101 has been truly “owned” by the entire University. The current President spared University 101 from the ravages of the Great Recession recognizing the good things that the course does for USC students and the symbolic and actual importance of the course for the international higher education community.  The choices our most senior leaders make really do matter.

Today, University 101 is very ably directed by Dr. Dan Friedman, a professional higher education administrator, who had previously led a similar course at Appalachian State University. Now in his fifth year at USC, Dr. Friedman is responsible for a course enrolling more than 4000 students in over 200 sections; and for a huge parallel effort—the recruitment and training of a corps of “peer leaders” who co-teach each of the sections of University 101. To execute a highly successful program like this requires a vast undertaking of on-going professional development for the instructional staff, combined with never ending assessment of educational outcomes, the findings from which are constantly used to make improvements while maintaining the original formula for success. Dr. Friedman reports to my successor, the extraordinarily able Mary Stuart Hunter, the Executive Director of University 101 and the National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.

A fairly simple blog posting cannot do justice to a complete history of how this one institution sustained such an extraordinary innovation that has had such widespread impact on the international higher education community.  But I did want to note this anniversary, which came so appropriately this year at the time of what Americans call “Thanksgiving.” I am truly thankful to the University for allowing me to be one of the contributors to this innovation which has led to so many other positive changes in the ways we higher educators now work with our first-year students.

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