John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

New Year’s Resolution 2014: More Than Just Passing Through—or How Could I Leave this Place a Little Bit Better?

December 18, 2013John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

I don’t really believe in New Year’s resolutions. But this is my last posting for 2013 and so I need to look forward. To do so requires me to also look backwards.

On the campus where I worked for 30 years the spot I loved the most was known to all as “The Horseshoe.” This was because the remaining original section of the University of South Carolina, chartered in 1801, the 35th oldest in the country, lies within a three sided brick wall in the shape of a “horseshoe.” It is the historical and symbolic heart of the institution, hallowed ground for many.

I am sure that over three decades I walked around and across that sacred space thousands of times. And, I knew the history of it better than most. And I knew that thousand before me had walked those grounds and would after me.

I knew that the wall had been ordered by the faculty to be built in 1821 to keep the students, all males, inside the wall and out of the drinking establishments in the little village of the capital city, Columbia. The faculty didn’t want these young men getting so inebriated that they would end up killing each other in the celebrated ritual code of honor involving dueling.

I knew that the wall had been built by slave labor, the ancestors of current African American students, who have rights, privileges, and opportunities that would have been unimaginable to their forefathers.

I knew that American colleges and universities have been trying for 350 years to wall out the culture, but that that almost always fails.

I knew that this was the site where Sherman’s army in February 1865 came but did not burn the campus down.

I knew that this was the site of a hospital for both Confederate and Union troops.

I knew that in May of 1970 the South Carolina National Guard fired tear gas on University students who were protesting the US invasion into Cambodia and that once again the wall had failed to keep out the culture.

I knew most importantly that faculty like me had been traversing these grounds for over two centuries and all of us were just passing through.

I also knew that of that 200 years I had had only 30 years to make contributions.

I believed, perhaps immodestly, that I had left the place a little bit better than I had found it.

So, as I end my year 2013 and I think about how other higher educators are ending their year, in the spirit of Happy New Year, I wanted to offer a suggestion, a proposal, for how we might think about our careers at our current institutions. And that perhaps that might lead some to a new year’s resolution.

I think we all need to realize that we are just passing through; that our institution had a well established history and culture before we arrived, and that it will continue after we have left. But that is certainly not to say that we cannot influence that history and culture. We can and must try to contribute educational improvements that will be institutionalized and will transcend our literal time spent there.

I don’t know how long I was at USC before I became conscious that I really was trying deliberately to make the place stronger than when and how I found it.

As my consciousness developed that this indeed was my intent, I realize this was in direct proportion to the mentoring I was receiving by a handful of men and one woman that I worked for over a period of 25 years. I had gotten the message that this is what I was supposed to do. This was my mission. I realized that this was counterculture to the dominant US pattern of upward social mobility, whereby upward strivers move frequently, with their primary loyalty being to themselves and not their employers.

I am not going to attempt to enumerate in this fairly succinct posting what I set out to do. But I know that after 30 years, I left the institution with elements that had not existed before:

  1. the well institutionalized University 101 first-year seminar and related programs to provide professional development to faculty, staff and peer leaders;
  2. the vibrant and flourishing National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition;
  3. the Senior Capstone Experience course, University 401

The ultimate direction I wanted to take in this posting was to invite my readers who are employed in post secondary settings to set for themselves for the new year the intentional goal of giving concrete shape to a personal plan and set of goals to leave your institutions better than you found them. I think this is necessary, reasonable, rational, appropriate, needed—no matter how long you think you might be there to stay the course.

So, some questions are in order.

First of all, what have you already done to make the place a little bit better?

And how is that the basis of what you could do in the future?

And in an ideal state of affairs, just what would you like to contribute?

And how long might you be willing to give this effort?

And whom would you need to partner with to do this?

And how would you know if you were successful?

And what would you want for yourself out of this, and for others, especially students?

And how would this fit in with your larger life goals and plan?

The place is bigger than you. It was here before you. It will be here after you. It is more important than you. You are just passing through.

But while you are here you are a transitory custodian of institutional welfare. If you are successful here, the place will be making you and your career better and you have the obligation to reciprocate.

I had a colleague work with and for me not too long ago. He told me that my ideas such as the above would have made me a great manager in the 1950’s. When I asked him what he was most referring to, he explained that I expected an unreasonable amount of organizational and personal loyalty. OK, so I am a vestigial organ to the era when institutions had a social contract with their employees. I admit it.

But I still think we are passing through and that we can and should strive to make the place a little bit better than we found it.

If you believe that, you need an intentional plan for how you are going to do that very intentionally. You could make that kind of thinking your new year’s resolution.

And I wish you well. Happy New Year, with this resolution, without this resolution, or with some other of your own.

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