John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Watch this Place: Governors State University

November 5, 2012John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

Recently my wife, Betsy Barefoot, and I had the opportunity to learn more about and see firsthand one of the last “upper division” institutions left that is now adding the first and second years of the undergraduate curriculum: Governors State University in Illinois. It was revealing to us—of many things, most fundamentally, the continuing value of the perennial questions we all need to be asking about the foundation of the undergraduate experience.

Governors State, a regional, public, comprehensive, university, founded in 1969, will admit in the fall of 2014 the class of 2018, its first “first-year” cohort, of 270 students. This transition comes 42 years after my work began in transforming the first year. What a tremendous advantage the University has in learning from so many efforts at so many, many places, to increase the probability of students success. And they have studied and learned well, and are incorporating most of the best practices that Betsy and I have observed elsewhere.

Of course, they are not creating a new university, starting from scratch. They will have 45 years of history, traditions, culture, rules, practices under their institutional belt when they welcome these new students—for whom the original university was never designed. So this is no easy task. It requires a tremendous amount of thinking, research, planning, effort, courage, open mindedness and a willingness to examine what will need to be changed to insure success for new students.

In thinking about the challenges they face, Betsy and I were also reminded of some of the perennial questions that any of us who work with first-year students need to keep in the forefront. We can never be reminded too often of these questions—for often, the questions are more important than the answers.

So what if you could be founding fathers and mothers and welcome a first class as your institution? What would you keep of your current approaches? What would you change?

Here are some of the questions we think you need to continue to pose:

What would an excellent first year be for your students, your institution?
What kind of a first year might best lay the foundation for the attainment of your mission statement?
What kind of first year might draw the students you most want to have?
What kind of first year might draw the students who most need what you will offer?
What kind of first year might best serve your region in accordance with the aspirational goals of your strategic plan?
What kind of first year can be most readily assessed for reporting outcomes to the regional accreditor whose visit will surely come?
What kind of first year might make you stand out, be truly unique, and offer your students a quality educational experience they cannot attain elsewhere?
What is the big vision for your first year?
And what is the contributing role of your unit to this vision?
And, most fundamentally, what is your role, your contributions, challenges, opportunities to attaining this big vision?

And the place to start is: your mission

The first year must lay a foundation for mission attainment and student retention.

As most institutions rethink their first year, they aspire to do both these things. And the place to start is to focus on “success” as a key point of emphasis rather than “access.” 

And this calls for new mantras, such as:

down with “look to your left and look to your right”
taking more institutional responsibility for student learning
the first-year experience
the sophomore year experience
the transfer student experience
the senior year experience
student success
college success
moving from ‘access’ to ‘success’
“the completion agenda”
“students don’t do optional”—moving from elective to required
not practicing negative self-fulfilling prophecies like: “Oh, our students would never do that because they are….”

In conclusion, Betsy and I left our first hand look at Governors State persuaded that they are a place to watch. Remember where you heard this, and, more importantly, remember to check them out. We all need inspiration. And we all need to be reminded of what are and what should be our fundamentals.








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