John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Talk about Partnerships and One Person Making a Difference

January 21, 2014John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

In the summer of 1972 I received a phone call that changed my life. It was from the most powerful person on my campus, the University of South Carolina, our President, Thomas F. Jones. I was stunned. He had an assistant page me at lunchtime in a Columbia, S.C. restaurant where she had somehow tracked me down.  The President came on the line and said “Hello, John, I would like you to do me a favor….” (I had never met the man before and had no idea he knew who I was, a brand new untenured professor in a faculty of about 1400). Of course, I replied I would be glad to, and quipped because it was a month after the Watergate burglary “…as long as it is not illegal or unethical….” He got a kick out of that smartass retort and went on to explain to me that he was putting together a sort of “think tank” that would represent a “partnership” that would be presented in a workshop. This all sounded terribly vague to me and so when I asked him what the workshop would be about, he said: “John, you don’t need to know that now; you will learn about that in the workshop.” And then he added, “And, John, if you like the workshop I would like you to teach a course for me!” Being a professor I understandably asked him what kind of a course. And he replied “John, you don’t need to know that now; you will learn about that in the workshop.” So off I went to this workshop/think tank, which lasted for three weeks, five afternoons a week for three hours an afternoon.

I discovered that this “partnership” the President referenced in his invitational command performance phone call to me was between a group of faculty, academic administrators and student affairs professionals. This was quite a revelation for me as an introduction because I had no idea what student affairs professionals were. They didn’t have any at my undergraduate institution in the 1960’s and so I had no personal or professional experience or contact with this very new profession.

The purpose of the workshop/think tank, by the way, was to design the University 101 first-year seminar course and to reengineer the first-year of college experience at the University of South Carolina. Two years later I was made the first faculty director of the course. The President participated in every minute of this 45 hour workshop and he became my mentor who opened the door of my life career.

I am thinking about this important concept of “partnership” because the non-profit organization I lead just completed our second offering of a professional development event we entitled “Academic and Student Affairs Leaders’ Institute: Partnerships for Promising Practices in Student Success.” This event was attended by teams from 53 post secondary institutions.

As we closed the meeting on Friday afternoon, January 17, I was reminded that we were all about to start a holiday long weekend to commemorate the life and work of Martin Luther King—AND that his life was a perfect example of a life dedicated to “partnerships.” I pointed this out to the participants, and that he and his creation of powerful partnerships was a wonderful example of a favorite adage that I have written about recently: one person can make a difference.

I heard Reverend King’s “I Have a Dream” speech when I was 19 years old. He was murdered when I was 24. These were very formative years for my own development as I became more and more intentional about what kind of an adult I was going to be.

I noticed how he based his actions on a set of core values and beliefs. I observed the consistency and interconnectedness of these beliefs with the major issues of those times, which were also my issues. I saw that he was not only concerned with his fellow African American citizens but all people. I saw that he was trying to advance opportunities for all people. He was trying to end prejudice and discrimination against all people (“brothers and sisters”). I saw that he was an advocate for children and adults; and for people of all faiths. And for people all over the world who were oppressed by injustice.

This meant that he became a leader of not only the Civil Rights movement in the United States but also a leader of the movement against the Vietnam War. And he was a champion for the rights of college and university students too.

It became very clear to me that this man believed in partnerships with an incredibly broad diverse range of constituencies and their people. He got all kinds of players together that had never come together like this before. So eventually we saw religious leaders from many faiths joining political leaders, educational leaders, business leaders, and ordinary citizens of so many persuasions—all for common causes. And what he accomplished changed the world as I had come to know it around me in the 1960’s. The lesson that one person can create powerful partnerships that transform institutions was made more clear to me than I had ever understood it before.

For me this intersection of my own recent professional work on improving academic/student affairs partnerships (which has really been a theme of my work spanning my entire career) with the literal observance of the holiday weekend celebrating Dr. King’s life, was a powerful congruence for my reflection and resolution to carry on.

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