John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Your Friends, They Come and They Go …

September 10, 2013huhnInsights0

John N. Gardner

I am writing this piece while I am with my wife out of the country, in Canada, on vacation. It is a relief to pick up a newspaper and see US news relegated to inside pages. Things aren’t going too well for my government these days and I am glad to see the world has other more positive things to think about. Today is the day President Obama delivers an address to the nation to implore us to support his proposed directions for dealing with the terrible situation in Syria.

As I think about my President I am reminded what my first mentor, my first University President told me once. He wasn’t trying to persuade our university to militarily attack another sovereign nation, as is Mr. Obama. But he was reflecting on the situations where Presidents are faced with opponents popping up all around them.

Poor President Obama. He can’t win on this one. The American people are sick of foreign adventures. They are punishing this President for the sins of the previous one. Now they don’t trust any president when he cites intelligence efforts. And there is the far left leaning wing of the President’s own party. He knew they would oppose this. And he knew that some of the loyal opposition would oppose him no matter what course of action he proposed simply because he proposed it. So the Syrian question has created a new coalition of strange bedfellows, exactly the situation my first university president summed up to me as:

“Your friends, they come and they go, but your enemies just accumulate!”

 And this is exactly what has happened to President Obama and the Syrian mess.

When I first heard this phrase, it was in 1980 during a visit my Dean and I were paying a former President of the University of South Carolina, Thomas F. Jones. Jones had been President from 1962-1974 and had “resigned” when he lost a vote of confidence in the Board of Trustees over the controversy of the day, the establishment of a medical school. Actually, he won the battle but lost the war. He got the medical school but the vote cost him so many former friends that he ultimately could not retain enough support on this board to retain his job. He told us this story as he was dying of cancer.

 ones was my first mentor. He was the President who changed my life by appointing me as Director of University 101.

We had flown up from Columbia, S.C to Cambridge to see him in his office as Vice President for Research at MIT, to bid him farewell. It was in that three- hour conversation that he made me take a death bed oath never to give up the work on the “freshman year experience”. And I haven’t.

I am thankful that most of my professional and personal lives (I feel as if I have led two lives at least) have been about the accumulation of friends. I would be hard put to think about the accumulation of enemies.

When I was nine, my father moved our family to Canada from the US where he was to run an American company in Canada for the next five years. Not long after I started in a Canadian public school my father sat me down and asked me how I was coming in making friends. Instead of showing him that I produced a little black book, literally, that I kept and in which I had a page or section that I devoted to the listing of “enemies.” When I showed my father this he was disturbed and immediately redirected me to think about the importance of accumulating “friends.” And I don’t mean the kind of Facebook “friends.” I am not “on” Facebook. This conversation took place in 1953.

In 1983 I had another conversation, this time with, now that I think about it, a kind of father figure for me, not literally of course but certainly as a mentor/mentee. In this case the conversation was with a man I was hoping to work for at the University of South Carolina, John J. Duffy. I was a candidate to be his Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs for the University’s Regional Campuses. He opened his conversation with me as part of the official “search” process by saying “Now, John, we have to have this conversation so let’s try to make it intellectually interesting!” John was Phi Beta Kappa through and through and most every conversation I ever had with him could be classified as “intellectually interesting.” So, of course, I agreed and he when on to pose a question to me to start our discussion: “John, who are your enemies?”

I really had to think about that one. I couldn’t remember anyone in my adult life ever asking  me about this and, of course, I recalled my conversation with my father forty years earlier. Now I had taken a sworn oath to defend the Constitution against our enemies but that was different. So I thought about it a while and came up with three enemies:

  1. The Director of University Libraries
  2. The Athletic Director
  3. The South Carolina Commissioner for Higher Education.

We had quite a conversation.

The Library Director, a man greatly esteemed as an expert on academic library physical design, and I had tangled on numerous occasions. I had once chaired a faculty/staff committee on student discipline and sat in judgment of a student who had been apprehended stealing a 75 cents copy of Sports Illustrated from the Library. The Director wanted him permanently expelled from the University. I refused to push for that and the Director never forgave me for being soft on student criminals. And then I ran afoul of him again when I wanted to take University 101 students into the Library for class tours. He forbade that because he didn’t want these first-year students talking and disturbing other library patrons. So we compromised when my administrative Co-Director for University 101, Professor Jerome Jewler, came up with this brilliant creation: “The Silent Library Tour” whereby we took hundreds of students into and through the library with a written tour activity guide but under the stricture that there was to be no talking at all.

And then there was my war with the Athletic Director, actually two of them in a row. And that is too involved to narrate here. Let’s just say that they wanted me to do things for first-year student athletes that I was sure would get my University into NCAA trouble and would not have been good for students at all. It was a good thing I was a tenured full professor because that’s what it takes to say “no” to the AD and still keep your job. The one I described as my “enemy” ultimately lost his job.

And then there was the Commissioner Against Higher Education. I had sparred with him publicly in front of a hearing committee of the South Carolina House of Representatives; they heard me and the Commissioner and then took a vote on the spot and supported my position over that of the Commissioner’s. Again, good thing I had tenure.

If only Mr. Obama’s troubles could be dispensed with so easily and were such low stakes. I believe the poor man is having to take positions now that he never would have wanted to take when he was a candidate back in 2008. No doubt about it: when you get in a position the expectations that surround that position may force you to change and act in ways you never would have chosen otherwise. I had studied this phenomenon in undergraduate sociology and understood it.

In my own case, as a campus-based student success leader for 25 years, I was deliberate about trying to win friends and not enemies for student success. A few of the ways I went about this were:

  • always putting the interests of the University before my own
  • always putting the interests of students before my own
  • always making decisions as if I could live with the consequences from them for the rest of my life at the University
  • always asking myself how I could work in partnership and collaboration with others instead of competition
  • always trying to create win/win situations for all those involved with me in my work
  • always keeping my bosses informed of my interactions with actual and potential adversaries—as Holiday Inn used to say: “the best surprise is no surprise at all.”

If somebody were to ask me at this point in my career who are my enemies, I could not list any. And when I think of the implications of that I realize how much more stress the President of the United States is going to be under tonight than I am. But I am going to watch him anyway tonight even though I am out of the country, literally, but never in my head.

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