John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Of all the efforts we either know of or have tried ourselves to improve undergraduate education, what matters most?

September 22, 2015huhnInsights0

John N. Gardner

Three years ago I received a phone call from a special friend and colleague in higher education, President Leo Lambert of Elon University in North Carolina, inviting me and my wife and colleague, Betsy Barefoot, to join him in a book project. I didn’t realize it then but this was really the start of a process to encourage and enable me to join a really special group of good thinkers to make some decisions about what I and we think matters most in undergraduate education.

Leo was calling me to discuss a potential project that would provide a companion volume to an important book published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2004, Transforming A College, which was about the story of the transformation of Elon from a relatively little known, regional, private university to a highly esteemed, national, innovative university, now being studied and emulated by many others. This book was written by the noted higher education strategic planning expert and consultant, the late George Keller. About 100 pages, designed to be read by institutional senior leaders on a flight from New York to Chicago, the book enjoyed great success in terms of sales and wide use by campus governance groups, especially administrator and board retreats. Leo’s original idea was that it was time for an update on what had happened since this “transforming” and what could be the most important lessons learned and applicable to a more diverse array of institutions that provide higher education for undergraduates.

President Lambert put together a working group consisting of himself; a colleague from Elon, Professor of History Peter Felten; Charles Schroeder, a Senior Consultant then with Noel-Levitz; Betsy Barefoot and myself. After we thought through what we wanted to do, could do, and what might be publishable, we had the good fortune to be offered a contract by Jossey-Bass. This book will be published this spring, 2016. Peter Felten is the author of two previous Jossey-Bass books and has been the editorial leader of this project. He is also the immediate past President of POD, the Professional Organizational Development network and is an outstanding faculty development leader and student of undergraduate innovation. Betsy and I have had six other books published by Jossey-Bass and we are privileged to be able to publish with them again. Charles Schroeder is one of the most esteemed leaders of the student affairs profession, having been a former chief student affairs officer at four universities and one of the most able student retention consultants in the country. And Leo Lambert is one of the college presidents from my career whom I admire most. In addition to Leo and Peter being leaders at Elon, the rest of us have connections with the University. Charles has been a past consultant and advisor to one of his former colleagues who is chief student affairs office at Elon, Smith Jackson. Betsy and I have been involved with the University as parents of an Elon graduate and other improvement initiatives undertaken by the University. We are huge fans of the University and have great respect for its remarkable transformation.

Our work together on this project has reminded me again how important it is to work collegially with other close colleagues and fine minds, to ask the most important questions to frame how we might inform and inspire others. In my entire career I have had a multitude of opportunities to come to important conclusions, worthy of sharing more broadly, when I am faced with a task of preparing an article, lecture, proposal, or even a book. It is those kinds of tasks that have often proved most helpful to me to decide what I really think, believe and know.

In this case we spent a great deal of time talking about the diversity of American higher education and how that might influence what we could endorse as strategies for improving undergraduate education that would have the most applicability to the broadest range of higher educators and institutions. Naturally, we did not want to write a book only for one sector where what we were encouraging would apply to only a narrow range of institutional types. At one point we went through the brief exercise of adding up the number of years the five of us had of higher education experience: in public and private, two an four-year, open and selective institutions and the total was moving towards the 200 mark. That would suggest it took us a long time to talk through what we knew, had experienced, observed and what we thought we ought to share and argue for.

As our work proceeded we kept coming back to one question and I both share that now and urge you to pursue it yourself in some kind of collaborative exercise. That question is—of all the efforts we either know of or have tried ourselves to improve undergraduate education, what matters most? Given the variety and depth of our experiences in undergraduate innovation this was quite a sorting process. We also wanted to be able to not only achieve consensus, but provide our readers with a book focus and especially recommendations that would be manageable, achievable, practical, and sufficiently generic. So we ultimately chose six themes, six core conditions that we believed—and then went on to illustrate, matter most to improve undergraduate education. And we posit these beliefs no matter what are the challenges facing the viability of US undergraduate education.

So what did we choose? Well, we are about to share the answer to that with our publisher as our final manuscript will be submitted October 1 for a spring 2016 publication. And it feels so good to be getting this manuscript off and into production. I will write about this further, surely, after publication. But I wanted to alert my readers to this pending publication ahead of time.

Most importantly, I wanted to encourage replicating our author group’s process of coming together for rich dialogue, debate, analysis, sharing and produce your own answer to this same question: what matters most for improving undergraduate education? Then we can compare our conclusions in mid 2016. So let this be both a catalyst and an invitation to consider coming attractions. We know that what will matter more than our six core principles are yours. And if you haven’t become explicit about your own, we highly encourage you to do so. The results could be profound for you, the students you serve, and your institution.

I publicly state my appreciation for the leadership of Elon University in this project and for them extending me the privilege of participating in this process. We know that publishing is the currency of the academic realm and we are hopeful that this Jossey-Bass book of ours will gain some real traction and influence and that ultimately, you will be quoting either our six themes for what matters most and/or your own.

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