John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Finding the Money

November 10, 2014John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

All my readers surely have heard the maxim: follow the money. It is an investigative path that always leads to the answer to the question: what’s really going on here?

I can’t possibly recount how many times I have heard over my career the explanation for why some course of action is not possible couched in the following language options: “We can’t afford it.” “The institution doesn’t have the resources.” “We could never get the money for that.”

At the same time as I am hearing that refrain I am hearing at the same time the action steps the same institution is taking. But those actions are often not in the same directions, for the same purposes, as those proposed by the people saying the place has no money. A recent case in point is an institution where there the explanation for not being able to take certain actions on behalf of first-year students is “insufficient resources.” But this same institution, at this same time, is starting a medical school. And most of my readers have some idea of what kind of resources adding a medical school would take.

So I concluded a long time ago about this matter of insufficient resources, that colleges and universities almost always have the money to do what they want to do. The question instead then becomes: what do they most want to do? Also critical, of course, is who is the “they”?

Decisions about what do you most want to do, ultimately comes down to values, beliefs, that in turn drive the allocation of resources.

And for most of us, there are finite resources. So of course, the institution can’t do everything that all its members and units might want it to do.

I have been saying for decades with reference to my own crusade for student success, that the resources available for this priority are directly related to the perceived value of this as an objective. To provide more support for students in need is a values based proposition. In fact, this is exactly the values struggle that is playing out right now in the US mid-term Congressional elections. And we can’t assume that the decision makers automatically understand why this effort to enhnce student success should be part of their value proposition. Some persons have to make the case—over and over again. For decades. That’s been my life’s work.

Thus, advocating for resources for student success initiatives ultimately comes down to focusing on the core values that underlie this as an institutional priority. For institutions always find the resources for what they value the most. This means that you cannot take for granted that decision makers automatically understand or agree with the notion that more attention, and therefore resources, should be directed to student success initiatives.

Therefore, I have been using language like: “The First-Year Matters” or “Why is the First Year Important?” This is the language of values based advocacy.

When I see what a college or university spends money on I know what it values. And then I know where I stand, or don’t. But this is not a given. The values of leaders are not immutable. They can be changed. They can be educated. They can be moved. They have to be persuaded to want to do something. For institutions always do what they most want to do.

What does your college or university most want to do?

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