John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Travels with John

John N. Gardner

I visit campuses for a living. I visit campuses for fun. I visit campuses while on vacation, too.

Let me comment first on the latter point. Occasionally, when my wife, Betsy Barefoot and I are on vacation, driving somewhere, and we see a road sign for a college or a university that we have not visited officially (between us we have been on about 700 campuses), just for the fun of it we will get off the thoroughfare on which we were headed before impulsively deciding to check this new place out and we will go mystery shopping.

Usually that involves, for starters, walking into the Admissions Office and seeing how we are treated as we maintain our anonymity. This is sometimes very revealing. You ought to try it.

In fact, that is some advice that should apply to all of us in higher education, namely, that we ought to get out and see as many institutions as possible, for the primary purpose of putting our own institution in perspective.

Unfortunately, in large part, only the senior members of the academy get to travel much because they have access to funds to support such travel. This also varies by institutional type. In my experience there are two types of institutions where the faculty and professional staff tend to travel the least: 1) small, private, non-selective liberal arts colleges; and 2) community colleges. Financial resources plays a major role in both these contexts. Many of the small privates that I work with are especially insular. This is too bad. It means they lack sufficient insights into the nature of the institutions, particularly the public ones, which are their formidable competitors. As for the community colleges, they have inherited the secondary school culture from which so many of them emerged half a century ago and that predecessor culture uses what are known as “in-service” to provide faculty/staff development. What this means basically is that the educators, below the ranks of senior leaders, don’t get to go anywhere and are “developed” by imported talent brought in to provide “in-service days”, and also using in-house talent quite appropriately to perform the same function.

One possible strategy for alleviating this institutionalized and self perpetuating insularity would be to encourage the development of faculty/staff “exchanges” especially between institutional types.

As a higher educator I practice my profession in a very atypical manner in that I get to visit many campuses on a very regular basis. Many of these visits are with the institutions that are engaged in the signature work on our non-profit organization, a self-study, planning and improvement process. This enables me to be constantly learning by noting the similarities and differences between the institutions I visit. I will share just a few from my recent travels, none of which were of the “mystery shopping” genre.

I am so used to noting in student union buildings/centers a plethora of businesses, what our business and finance colleagues call “auxiliary enterprises” that seem to be trying to sell our students just about anything, that when I went in a student center recently where they weren’t doing that, it really struck me as notable and commendable. This was a beautiful new student center at Waubonsee Community College in Sugar Grove Illinois. My hat was off to the planners of this facility who actually left the overwhelming portion of the space to non-commercial purposes, such as a one stop shopping administrative  commons for student services and really spacious seating areas for students to relax, eat, study, socialize, do group study at tables, etc. Good for these people.

I am so used to seeing the physical  facilities which serve are lowest SES students, especially community colleges and truly “urban” campuses, looking almost as poor as the students they serve, that when I saw the opposite recently I just couldn’t get over my shock. Again, this was at a visit at Waubonsee Community College, which does serve a significant cohort of economically disadvantaged students, but you could never tell that from its facilities, some of the most beautiful I have seen anywhere, at any type of post secondary institution.

Very recently I visited a university, Salem State University in Massachusetts where I joined approximately 130 faculty and administrators to explore the current practice of collaboration on campus. Now I have participated in all sorts of retreats, summits, colloquia, symposia in my career; but the idea of pulling together a university community to explore how well we are collaborating with each other and how we could improve that, struck me as very novel, needed, and commendable. What a model for students too. Imagine what it might be like if they could live in communities and work in organizations that focused more on collaboration than the cherished American norm of collaboration.

I participated recently in a meeting of college and university presidents in New England where I heard a stunning description by a president of that president’s fellow CEO’s from an institutional type presidential gathering. The description was that “they were primarily a group of aging white men hoping to get to the point of retirement without having to make the tough decisions that needed to be made right now!” Now, that really caught my attention, not so much for the demographic generalization, but for the observation about abstaining from critical decision making. I would have to say that in my experience, that does not describe the majority of presidents/chancellors that I interact with from any institutional sector. Being a college/university president strikes me as a job that is getting tougher and tougher. I admire many of them.

Twice in a month I have been on campuses (CUNY’s York College and Waubonsee Community College) where I heard moving testimonials from students as to the powerful influence on their learning, skill and self concept development, from being involved in co-curricular activities, particularly interest affinity groups. Most recently I heard students at Waubonsee Community College describe life-changing lessons they had learned from being founders of new student organizations.

I could go on but I won’t, at least not in this posting. You have to get the idea. There are other ways I continue my learning about different campus cultures and practices but this is the manner in which I think I learn the most. What about you? How do you learn, especially about your own campus culture and its impact on students and educators alike?

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