John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

This Could Be Us—Or Is It?

John N. Gardner

On a recent evening, March 14, I got home fairly late from a meeting and settled down with a glass of wine and that day’s New York Times which I have been reading faithfully every day since my first year of college. And on this particular evening I turned first to the Op-Ed page and my attention was immediately riveted by an extraordinary piece written by a 33 year old now resigned executive from the world’s premiere investment bank, Goldman Sachs, one Greg Smith. As I devoured this piece, I knew that I would be hearing about this column the very next day as a hard news story.

And I was right. The very next day The Times ran above the fold, on page 1, its lead piece “Public Rebuke of Culture at Goldman Opens Debate.”

I assume that most of my readers will have already been reading and hearing about this public resignation via op-ed column and all the varied opinions it has engendered. I read the piece and found myself immediately saying “this could be us”, the “us” being US higher education not-for-profit institutions. And then I found myself asking “Or is it?”

The basic theme of the original Times column was that this young man had discovered this world class company not to be what he had come to expect, even though the reader would assume the writer had personally reaped great financial gain—a company that had lost its original culture and vision, in effect, its soul. Instead of having the best interests of its clients as the foremost objective of all its business transactions, the only objective reported by this successful trader (not “traitor) was making extraordinary sums of money by taking advantage of your clients.

As I read this piece I found myself recalling the conversation themes emerging from a recurrent session that I co-facilitate under the leadership of my colleague at USC, Stuart Hunter, and my wife, Betsy Barefoot, at each of the conferences organized by USC’s National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition. These sessions are entitled “Spirituality, Authenticity and Wholeness in Higher Education.” These are essentially facilitated discussion sessions around this theme, in which the concept of “spirituality” does not necessarily mean a conventional definition of that term, but rather more generically one’s ultimate and most important values. Participants, always a capacity crowd, are asked to reflect on to what extent are the practices of their particular college or university congruent with the most important values and beliefs of the employed educators in this discussion. And then to consider how do we respond and manage circumstances when our basic values are not congruent with the policies and practices of our institution? And this was exactly the situation that Mr. Smith at Goldman Sachs found himself in: how was he to act when his values were no longer consistent with the prevailing values’ culture at Goldman. When he realized he could no longer give the company line to college student intern candidates applying for coveted internships at Goldman it was a moment of truth for him. How do we deal with our inner selves, and our outer behaviors, if and when we are not congruent with the institutional party line of our employers? That is a question of relevance here.

As I read and thought about the original column further I couldn’t help but substituting the word “students” for the word “clients” in his piece. And I found myself recalling from these discussion sessions referenced above the deep concerns expressed as the dominant theme, namely, the academy has become all about money too. It has become corporatized. What matters now in many ways more than the students is money. And increasingly my friends and colleagues from the academy report the question is now what could we do to “save” money but to “make” money. Thus, very much like the airlines, basic parts of the experience for which we never charged before, have become monetized. I don’t even need to provide examples. My readers will immediately understand.

And, so, Mr. Smith has become an Everyman. I couldn’t help but note the coincidence of his column appearing during an election cycle when one of those who would be king has a value system very compatible with the one Mr. Smith has just rejected. My fellow citizens will get to choose in a few months. But for all of us in the academy in terms of our day to day work and inner thoughts and feelings about such work, it is not so easy. We don’t just vote on one day. We have to vote with our actions every day in terms of how we mesh those with the dominant values of our institutional culture. And this is why I rant so much about the prized outcome of my work, student “retention”, being a debased business model, that does not do complete justice of the intellects and souls (in the secular sense) of our students.

If you haven’t read Mr. Smith’s Op-Ed piece in its full text, you really should.

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