John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Reporting Live From the 31st Annual First-Year Experience Conference

February 22, 2012John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

The 31st Annual First-Year Experience Conference has just concluded, either the largest or second largest in our history—the final tally has yet to be completed. There were nearly 2000 in attendance including 300 representatives from the host state of Texas and from over 600 institutions from nine countries—and this isn’t even marketed as an “international” conference!

The meeting was held in San Antonio, an ideal convention center unless you are a bar owner during the annual meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous which I learned from a taxi driver recently met there. The city’s convention center is the most attractive and comfortable I have ever seen.

In light of the fact that this was my 31st annual meeting, the only person there for all 31, I found myself asking what is/was different about this one? What is perennial? What are the concerns and issues? What’s new?

From my perspective the most remarkable thing is the given: the FYE movement has become institutionalized. It is now the establishment. It has gone mainstream.

The meeting continues to draw at least half first-timers each year. This is a very healthy indicator. 

The meeting had over 60 for-profit exhibitors, which shows the alliance of shameless commerce with the academy these days. I would not have predicted or wanted this 32 years ago when I conceived the idea for the conference, but it is very apparent that the forces of capitalism have discovered there are many things we either don’t do well enough on our own or that we want to outsource to them. The driver for this, of course, is retention.

When we started what is now a “movement,” we found that the initial champions were our colleagues in Student Affairs. Now, they don’t need to be the champions.  That’s because the academic affairs folks are there, engaged, so much so there is much talk of formerly Student Affairs functions being reorganized into Academic Affairs reporting lines—true testimony to the quality of the job Student Affairs professionals have done in persuading the academy of the importance of their work to the academic success of college students.

For many years in the late 80’s and earlier 90’s, we worked very hard to recruit senior leaders: presidents/chancellors, vice presidents to these meetings. We even used to waive their registration fees if they would just come and bring a team of at least three others. In 2012, only a handful of them were in evidence. I think what this means is that they are already sold; they don’t need to be convinced. They get it.  But I still wish more of them were there.

The conference attendees seemed to me to be evenly divided between three constituencies: academic affairs administrators, student affairs administrators, and faculty. And we had students with us too. I so admire institutions that are willing to invest their precious travel monies to bring students.  I can only conclude that our original goal in 1981 to organize a conference to bring together those constituencies to rally around a common focus—the welfare of beginning college students, is still the dominant cultural characteristic of this meeting.

One of the most meaningful sessions I participated in was one with teams from six Tribal Colleges.  There is no population of American students more neglected than the students of these colleges.

It was a consensus that this work was more needed than ever given the directions of American society towards ever-increasing levels of social and economic inequality. I was struck though with how few of the attendees seem to understand or realize the origins of the FYE movement being in the social justice movements of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. I did my best to remind the multiple audiences I had of this important heritage and of the fact that the civil rights movement is definitely unfinished.

Many of the attendees still feel undervalued and unappreciated on their campuses because of the low status of new students, and hence those that work with those students. So the most important thing that happens for these attendees is affirmation, which they so deserve.

The FYE movement began as a reaction against the tenets of the academy that were denying dignity and resource commitment to new students. The importance of the first year is now well established and institutionalized at most campuses. Thus, the “revolution” has now become orthodox. As a recovering former historian, I know that the most threatening thing to the vitality of any revolution is for it to become the new orthodoxy. I was pleased to see that there were no evidences that this movement has yet to become staid and complacent.

I left the conference as I have for a number of years now feeling gratified and with the goal to keep coming until my fiftieth when I will be 87.  I hope our country will be more committed to social justice then than it is now. In contrast to my aspiration, just last Friday, February 17, a candidate for President stated very explicitly that he supported economic inequality*. The comment provided great timing to remind me that I have the opposite goal for the future of the FYE conference series. And, I am betting that more of the American people share my vision than this particular candidate’s vision for our collective future.


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