John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

What Professors Mean to Students

February 13, 2014John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

I had an occasion recently to remind me, even though I don’t think I really need reminders, of what professors mean to their students. The occasion very simply, was my birthday. As is the case almost every year, I have former students write me and or call me to remind me what I meant and mean to them, and to catch me up on the passage of their lives, and inquire about my own.

As I travel around the country in my work with campuses and higher educators, I hate to report this, but I hear a great deal of faculty bashing. Some administrators, especially those that don’t come out of the faculty ranks, see the professoriate as a source of many of our problems. And I know some trustees see us the same way. And then there are right wing politicians and the right wing media. They definitely don’t like us and want to abolish tenure, which, sadly but understandably, is gradually happening anyway. I certainly acknowledge that some of the things they don’t like about us are true. We are more likely to be liberal. We do fill our students’ heads with all kinds of ideas they wouldn’t get anywhere else. We do occasionally obstruct change that we don’t like. We are frequently a thorn in the side of administrators.

But in all my years of talking to former college students, when I hear them talk about what was most meaningful to them in their college experience –well, it was a variety of experiences and people. But at the top of every list it is fellow students and “the faculty.” Yes, I know that some students feel that same way about some administrators, particularly our good partners in Student Affairs. But sadly, some of my Student Affairs colleagues also see “the faculty” at times as “the enemy” and argue: “if only the faculty understood students the way we do, and lived with the students we do, and were student advocates like us…” Unfortunately, for some members of this important profession, their socialization into the profession has taught them these negative faculty attitudes based on the frustration some have had in getting faculty attention for student development initiatives. I do understand all this and sympathize.

When I remind myself about what I have observed at Homecoming events and who it is that the former students come back to see: it is the faculty. The institutions I know best in that regard are my undergraduate alma mater, Marietta College, and my full-time employer of 32 years, the University of South Carolina. And at the former, especially, when I see the new buildings that have gone up in my life time and note who they are named for, it is the faculty. And, ironically, it is often very liberal faculty who have had huge influence on students who went on to amass considerable fortunes in the world of free enterprise capitalism and then returned significant amounts of those fortunes to their alma maters! At Marietta today I see that kind of gratitude transforming a college through these forms of giving back.

So I am encouraged from all these vantage points that we must be doing something right. I know why my students keep in touch with me. I know what I did for them.  And what they did for me. Not much could come my way on a birthday to hear from them.

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