John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Partnerships: More of what is Needed on Campus and in Washington

December 3, 2012John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

I write this after just having had a total immersion experience! On November 29-30 my colleagues at the Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education, immersed ourselves in a very intensive learning experience grappling with about 170 academic and student affairs administrators and faculty, in what we called an “Academic and Student Affairs Leaders’ Institute.” This was held in Asheville, North Carolina and was sponsored by our non-profit organization.  The basic purpose of the meeting was to help each institutional team create a plan to take back home to enhance the effectiveness of very specific academic/student affairs partnerships.

As an outcome of this meeting, we will be releasing and disseminating after the first of the new year a statement of principles for effective practices in such partnerships, a product emerging from the contributions of all present at this convening. We hope it will be widely considered and used on campuses for aspiration, planning, measurement, and improvement purposes.

The theme of pursuing increased student success through academic and student affairs partnerships has been a basic principle of my own professional practices since I first saw such a partnership at play in creating one of the most important innovations in American higher education in the later 20th century: the University 101 and then “first-year experience” concepts. I have seen the powerful differences such partnerships can make and have been troubled by why we don’t have more of them.

Much more recently, the work of the non-profit organization, which I co-lead, has been focusing primarily on helping campuses develop a new vision for a more effective beginning college experience—for both new and transfer students. We have now worked with about 250 institutions to develop such a new vision and we are finding the greatest challenge is not in developing that vision but executing it! So as an organization we are increasingly moving towards spending more time helping on the execution in addition to the creating and planning for the vision.

As we have grappled with how best to help campuses develop an aspirational plan to improve student success we have realized that an essential means to this end is the creation and improvement of partnerships between academic and student affairs administrators, and faculty.

Before the 1960’s, to the extent that students got help at all at America’s colleges and universities, from persons other than fellow students, it was solely from the faculty. But in the second half of our last century we created what is now a very, very large (as in hundreds of thousands) new cohort of educators we have come to know (and appreciate) as student affairs professionals. But it has been one thing to add this new component of the campus environment and quite another to learn how to take maximum advantage of what they might bring to the table of educational effectiveness. My point here is that we have to learn how to work together more effectively. These are two different cultures. The challenge is not to merge them so much as to complement them, integrate them and figure out how to best harness the talents of both. It is in that spirit that we convened all these educators at the above referenced meeting.

Timing in life is always important. In the week that we convened the academic and student affairs leaders, we saw in our nation’s capital the continuing stand off between the White House, and the Democrats and Republicans in Congress, over the so-called “fiscal cliff” which ultimately has come down to the issue of whether to increase taxes on those of us who are the most advantaged financially.  The conference attendees were like the millions and millions of other Americans who are sick of the adult leaders in our capitol not acting like leaders and not acting like adults.

Instead we watch them insult each other.

We note their incivility. 

Their pursuit of selfish goals.

Their immature failure to note the needs of others. 

Their refusal to work together. 

Their inability to look at the big picture, what might be best for the country.

Their inability to rise beyond narrow partisan interests.

And our students are watching these leaders who are setting the standards for the rest of us and purporting to be role models. Surely we can do better.

And how could we do better? By us adult leaders on campus working together differently from those our students see at the national level. There has long been the historic tension in American higher education around to what extent should our campus cultures be expressive of the American culture or different from it. So I believe that effective working partnerships between academic/student affairs administrators and faculty are now needed more than ever, not just as an effective means to student success, but to teach our students by example how leaders in our country could and should work together. The adage of thinking globally—or at least nationally—and acting locally comes to mind. I repeat: surely we can do better than the Republicans and Democrats in our legislative and executive branches. Our students watch us very carefully. Even more powerful than what we say is what we do.  Creating, sustaining, enhancing collaborative partnerships is a way of teaching our students who they might become more effective organizational leaders and create more effective organizations for our collective national future. And in the shorter run, we will increase levels of student success that are not possible in the absence of such partnerships. This is what our work is all about.

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