John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

What’s to Be Learned?

December 12, 2012John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

My colleagues in our non-profit Institute feel compelled to remind me now and then not to be too “political.” This is a challenge for me. Politics is all about values, and values based belief, policies and actions. And I am constantly aware of my values and how I want to base my behaviors on them. For example, my values about the value of the pursuit of social justice, especially when applied to disadvantaged college students, has been at the basis of my work in higher education for four decades. But unlike some of our country’s leaders in the Congress, I do want to reach across the aisle and embrace colleagues of different political persuasions.

As some of my readers may know, I am recovering former historian. This means that how I see the world, including and often especially the academy, is influenced by how I understand the influence of history on whatever I happen to be trying to understand.

And so the current dynamics, especially of the US political party that lost the recent US presidential election, makes me wonder what the analog may be to the college campus.

For the initial few days after the election I was optimistic that the defeat of one party would lead to some changes that would be more than cosmetic in its policy propositions. But now six weeks later I am less optimistic. Admittedly, not nearly enough time has elapsed. I find myself asking, “What have they learned?”  Shouldn’t it be obvious that their policies on immigration, taxation, women’s rights (especially related to reproductive choices and freedom), marital rights, were counterproductive to winning the center? Surely the good analytical minds of this party can now see that their positions have so alienated the majority of women, especially single women, Hispanics, African Americans, gay Americans, that given the demographic trends of our country we could conclude that this party does not have a viable long term future unless it makes major changes. One would think.

And so I ask myself, look at higher education and what is analogous? What are some of our own beliefs and policies that are clearly not working, that are driving our students away (the opposite of retention), and that threaten our future viability? What is right there for us to see? But so far we are refusing to budge. Maybe even we are digging in and being even more recalcitrant as we cling to our cherished preferences. How are we acting as if we still teach the students we used to have, or think we used to be like, or wished we had instead, instead of the ones we actually have?

Let’s get specific John.

What about our continuing to focus on admitting students, providing access, so we can make money from they way they spin our funding formulas as opposed to focusing on having policies that would make these students more likely to be successful. I wrote about this recently in this electronic column. It is all about being “success” focused rather than “access” focused.

What about our reluctance to require students to do the things we know will make them more likely to be successful (e.g. orientation, advising, taking first-year seminars)?

What about our continuing tolerance for such high failure rates in gateway courses?

What about our continuing tolerance for what my wife, Betsy Barefoot, calls “assessment free zones”? I refer to the emphasis I see on assessment of low status programs (like first-year seminars and developmental education) but holding harmless any serious efforts to measure outcomes in the real college curriculum, the traditional discipline based gateway courses.

What about our perpetuation of a faculty roles and rewards culture in baccalaureate institutions that not only does not reward them for spending more time with students but often punishes them for doing so?

I could go on. But I won’t. You surely get the point. We can’t control what Congress is doing but we can influence the needed adjustments to the changing realities on our own campuses.

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