John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

It’s High Time I Wrote!

March 2, 2015huhnInsights0

John N. Gardner

I have truly been delinquent about staying current with our Gardner Institute blog. January 20 was my last posting. My birthday is February 2, much more notably known as Groundhog’s Day. I emerged from my hole in the ground, multiple times that day, saw my shadow each time, but did not return for hibernation.

Because I am so far behind I am not going to comment in depth today on one topic, but rather more in passing on a number of them.

In January the non-profit organization, which I lead, the Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education, hosted two back-to-back professional development conferences in California. Conference hosting is not one of our signature lines of work but we do engage in this occasionally. This activity in particular reminded me of the first conference I hosted in the First-Year Experience series in California. That was in 1986 and it gave a tremendous further “kick” or “bump” to the national movement known by its acronym, “FYE.” In my position then at the University of South Carolina, I had hosted the founding FYE Annual Conferences in 1982,83,84, and 85. Our attendance was 173, 351, 500—and I don’t remember 85. But I made a crucial—and smart—decision to host two versions of the conference in 1986—an “East” and a “West” version and that year we had 1600 attendees. The FYE West Conference was co-hosted by the University of California Irvine, thanks to our friendship and partnership there with a prominent scholar, Professor John Whiteley. So this January, I got a chance for West Redux, déjà vu, and both these meetings were very successful, again co-hosted with UCI Irvine where my long-time friends John Whiteley and Thomas Parham extended their hospitality. One of the meetings was a new one for us, a Retention Symposium, in which we offered a facilitative process to help institutions return home with a concrete plan to address retention challenges. We plan to repeat this meeting in Asheville, N.C. on June 8-9, 2015. The second meeting was our third annual offering of an institute for senior academic and student affairs’ leaders on partnerships for student success. California is so important as a bell weather state and higher ed economy. Thought leaders ignore it at their own peril.

In early February, I returned to the 34th Annual Conference on The First-Year Experience, this year in Dallas. Some 1800 attendees came from 17 nations. The meeting was as vibrant as ever, still drawing a huge percentage of “first-time attendees” which suggests continuing new lifeblood for the movement. The 35th annual conference will be held next February in Orlando. Long may it live.

At this 34th Annual Conference, it was announced that the leader of the University’s first-year programs and conferences, Stuart Hunter, will retire this June 30. Stuart has been my most able successor and has overseen the further evolution of the initiatives I founded to levels of support, institutionalization, impact and replication that I was not able to attain in my period of leadership. I am very proud of her accomplishments and she will be leaving these activities so important to the wider higher education community in very, very good shape—and in very good hands. Her two most senior colleagues, who lead the instructional activities and the Center’s conferences, publishing and research activities are, respectively, Dan Friedman and Jennifer Keup. These are outstanding professionals whom I am also proud to call my colleagues. They assure the kind of continuity that all of us who respect these programs would want and expect. I urge my readers to reach out and offer their continuing support to Dan and Jennifer.

And, the undeclared phase of the 2016 presidential election is underway. It appears as if higher education will be an issue. I am saddened to see the attacks from Republicans in North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Illinois, on university “centers” whose missions these conservative leaders do not appreciate (in NC where three such centers are being recommended for closure) and/or on public university budgets, most notably by Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. The tension between our more liberal campuses and more conservative political leaders is a long standing theme in the history of US higher education. But recent events are testing the strength of academic freedom, and perhaps ultimately tenure. We are being forced to adapt and change. Our cultures are becoming more “corporate.” I am confident though that these great universities are sufficiently resilient that they will outlast these current foes.

Spring can’t come soon enough in this winter of winters for my eastern US readers. And some of us would say the same for the 2016 presidential election!

I will return in less than a month!

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