John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Oh, If Only We Didn’t Have to Change!

September 11, 2012huhnInsights0

John N. Gardner

Lake Champlain

This is another post written while on vacation. For exactly ten years my wife and I have made an annual return vacation to a Vermont inn on Lake Champlain, that permits me at least to return to a time pre-email. This lovely inn was built in 1888 and is furnished in period antiques. There are no televisions or radios in the rooms. There are phones in the rooms, and this year only for the first time in ten years, there is in-room internet access, which I have not availed myself of. It is such a welcome relief to untether. This place is so remote there is also no cellular service. Heavenly!

There are so many reasons why we like returning here each year. The most important reason is that the place does not change. In a world when there is ever less predictability, it is wonderful to return to anyplace that is not changing. We count on that. We look forward to it. We celebrate it. And it harkens back to more than a century ago, a time I did not experience, but I feel I would have felt at home in.  And I like, if only in a small, almost fantasy part of my life, no change. This is in total contrast to the rest of my professional year when I am promoting change in order to improve student performance in the beginning college experience.

We came here for the first time the year after 9/11. On 9/11, 2001, we had been on “holiday” with a British couple, dear friends of ours, in France, chilling out in  Provence. After a day’s outing and our return to our lovely rented cottage, sitting on an outdoor patio drinking wine, our sense of tranquility was interrupted forever by the news of the attacks on the World Trade Center. My first thought, I hate to admit it, was not for the thousands who had just died, but for the millions of us who survived, but who would be profoundly affected by the decisions made by the US President, the “decider”, as he so fondly referred to himself. All I could think was “No way this man, of all the possible leaders we could have had, can possibly grasp the intellectual complexities of what has just happened to us.” Sadly, I was proven right. And for the next decade we have chosen not to be out of the country on the anniversary of 9/11.

This year, we will be in Quebec, staying at another place that does not seem to change, a rural French Canadian “manoir”. I had five wonderful years as a child living in Canada and we return each year for at least one vacation is this safe and sane country. This is exactly the kind of culture I would like my students to experience just for the sake of contrast.

In spite of my vacation preferences, I really am a person who advocates change and walks his talk. I know that higher education must change. The present ways we are doing business are just not sustainable. We can’t continue to afford the current delivery models. And many of these models just aren’t working very well, especially, the default public policy access point: the American community colleges, where the failure rates of students in college parallel programs is simply unacceptable. The reasons for that are a whole separate story, one I must be talking about increasingly in my public addresses.

Several months ago I was having a conversation with a senior program officer of a major American foundation. We were discussing this foundation’s investment policy with respect to a particular institutional type in American higher education: private, liberal arts colleges. And the officer was explaining to me why his/her particular foundation is reluctant to make investments in this sector of American higher education, our oldest sector: “those people just want us to give them money so they don’t have to change!”

Upon reflection, and in fairness, I concluded this could really be said of most of us. Most of us would like to have the infusion of new financial resources to prevent change. We would like to sustain the present, even though it isn’t working very well.  Basically, what this means is that we would like to have an infusion of grants to enable us to sustain the status quo. The grants permit us to undertake new work and thus to preserve existing resources to protect our current institutionalized ways of doing business. How often I have seen colleges and universities, in my area of work, secure external grants to undertake new initiatives to improve first-year student success. When they get new resources to implement new approaches it means they are spared having to reallocate and hence we get to maintain the status quo a little bit longer. I know that this is not a sustainable model.

I see this constantly in my domain of higher education work. Institutions get grants to ramp up developmental education, initiate or refine first-year seminars, launch learning communities, implement Supplemental Instruction, etc. What they are doing, of course, is exactly what they should have been doing on exiting resources and not seeking new resources. But I get it: this protects us from having to change the basic ways we organize our colleges and universities. First-year programs are really ancillary, funded on temporary monies, and the status quo doesn’t have to change. I am reminded again, that institutions always find the money to do what they most value. And what they value most is maintaining the status quo. I understand this. I am the guy who likes to vacation in places that remind me of what it used to be like to take a vacation a century ago. But I also am always ready to return to, look forward to returning to, the important work of change agentry to help our higher education system make the changes it must make, because it cannot escape, unlike me, the changes being thrust upon it.

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