John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

I am Right About…

November 6, 2013John N. GardnerInsights1

John N. Gardner

In that part of my life as a blogger, I am rarely influenced by my office colleagues. That is to say they rarely ever suggest any topic for me to write about. Somehow, they just leave me to fend for myself although I do think of my writing the organization’s blog as somehow speaking for the organization. Maybe that is extreme. This is a personal and professional medium of communication. I do know that I am primarily speaking for myself. I suspect my colleagues just think that I am capable of coming up with my own topics. And it is also the case that they have more important things to think about! I must say though that although the norm is that they don’t influence me on my blog topics, they do influence my thinking in many other ways, particularly as a result of their teaching me about the things they know and can do that I usually don’t know or can’t do.

The other day was an exception. Somehow, I was talking with several of my colleagues about a matter about which I maintained I was “right.” They teased me and suggested “John, why don’t you write a blog about what you know is ‘right’?” I thought about it. And I was leery. The world has too many other people who know they are right and they often end up killing each other to prove the point. And I don’t want to be like them. I recall a member of the US House of Representatives, during the recent shutdown, a Tea Party proponent, who responded when asked why he/they had shut down the government responded simply, “Because we are right!” Don’t you just love that certainty? If there is anything the college experience did for me, it made me a citizen who is a lot less sure that he is right.

So when I think about what it means to be “right”, I guess what it really comes down to is what are some of my beliefs that are guiding principles or insights for me? What are some things about my world, especially that of higher education, that really do hold and ring true for me?

When I think about being “right” in this manner, I am not sure of the best place to begin. And I realize that this post could rapidly become a book. I won’t let that happen.

So here are just a few things I think I am right about, and not in any order of priority:

  1. Human groups—like colleges and universities—and the Republican party—will do whatever they have to do to survive and self perpetuate. This means that they can and will change. This is basic Sociology 101.
  2. Organizations always have the money to do what they most want to do. The question then becomes what do we most want to do? This means that our shared work on student success all comes down to the perceived value of that work.
  3. In my line of work, I have had a late career epiphany: the “real” “first-year experience” is not a first-year seminar; it is the “gateway course experience.”
  4. Some higher education, public policy, and government officials seem to like to trash the faculty. What I know for sure is that it is the faculty that the students come back to Homecoming wanting to see. It is the faculty who are named by donors as the inspiration for the big gift. It is the faculty who are the primary culture carriers. It is the faculty who outlast any administration. And the faculty have 1000 years of experience supporting or obstructing policy directives they like or dislike, respectively.
  5. In this era when it is increasingly argued that faculty no longer need tenure, all I know is that without tenure at my university I would not have been able to be the advocate for students, institutional integrity, and academic freedom that I was.
  6. What matters most is what we do to support the success of ALL students. There will never be the political will in this country to provide enough support for the most “at risk.” Example: all students need some type of first-year seminar not just developmental students.
  7. All students are “developmental”, lower case “d.” Thus, any student can be and technically is “at risk” to some degree.
  8. Entering college students can be taught “college success”, “student success.” Most students want to learn this because they want to be successful. And we now have more than sufficient knowledge about how to go about teaching college success.
  9. The best faculty, such as I once was, are not “born” teachers. We are “made” by the influences, models, mentors, and faculty development that can and does shape us.
  10. The standard most common indicators of high school period performance that suggest the potential to be successful in college (e.g. rank in class, and scores on aptitude exams) do not predict four variables that are hugely influential on success in college: 1) intelligence; 2) motivation; 3) courage; 4) the ability of good teachers to engage students. The implications of this apply to all post secondary settings, especially those with open admissions.
  11. The greatest influence on college students’ behavioral choices during the college years is that of other students. Families come next and after that a distant third are people like the readers of this blog. To some educators, this could be a scary thought. The implication is clear: we have to be far more intentional about putting our most outstanding students in official positions where they can influence other students.
  12. Higher education, albeit imperfect, is still the greatest and best hope we have to achieve upward social mobility in our country.
  13. The so-called “student success” movement is the latest chapter in the unfulfilled civil rights movement and our continuing quest for social justice for all our citizens.
  14. My wife, Betsy Barefoot, is right when she says that on every campus there are always some “assessment free zones.” These are the areas of operation, and the curriculum, that are so well established and high status that their effectiveness is never seriously questioned. The student success movement isn’t there yet.
  15. When pushed to its logical conclusion the Completion Agenda’s push to tie funding in public institutions to completion rates, will dumb down the standards and reduce US higher education quality. We Americans love money too much to forgo it in the name of higher standards. We will do what we have to do to keep pushing students through the pipeline to complete for the sake of completion.
  16. The Bible, of course, said something to effect that “where there is no vision, the people will perish.” We need a more aspirational vision for higher education outcomes than simply retention—even though increasing retention rates is terribly important. For the past ten years I have worked with over 250 institutions to create an aspirational vision that goes beyond retention and focuses on a vision instead for an “excellent” first year or transfer experience. When this vision becomes a plan, in retrospect, higher educators are much better at creating the aspirational, strategic plan, than at implementing such plans.
  17. Our work is never done: today, when over 60% of US undergraduates are transfer students, the transfer student experience resembles in many ways what the “freshman year experience” looked like 30 years ago: a low status, captive audience, of neglected and fending-for-themselves hugely important student cohort.

I am just getting rolling here. But if I keep on any longer this will have exceeded the informal norms for appropriate blog length. I wish more of us could get together on what we believe to be “right.” I am thankful I have so many colleagues that agree with me!

One Comment

  1. Jennifer RockwoodNovember 6, 2013 at 12:45 pmReply

    Bravo John. Thank you so much for saying this and putting it out there for all to read ! Wonderful and thoughtful.

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