John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Small Colleges Can Be Inspiring

This week on Sept 22-23, my wife, Betsy Barefoot, and I spent working with teams from 36 independent North Carolina Colleges, all of them members of the North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities. It was an inspiration—not that we were an inspiration for them, but them for us.

Betsy and I are both graduates of independent colleges, she from an elite one in North Carolina, Duke, and me from one that is not elite, but a fine place nevertheless, Marietta College in Ohio. While I like to think I really understand the small, independent college culture, I still got a powerful reminder yesterday of their cultural attributes which I can never be reminded of too much.

Our focus was on the importance of academic advisement. And the conference was held on the campus of Elon University. Talk about not needing a reminder! I send a contribution to Elon every year to continue my practice of “giving thanks,” as I have learned to say in the South, to Elon for the marvelous academic advising it provided my son, Jonathan Gardner, during his four years there from 1994-98. Yes, I am still sending them money in honor of his two academic advisors, one his faculty advisor, and one his professional staff advisor. So one of my criteria, for what I have developed and call an aspirational plan for outstanding academic advising, is that a campus create the kind of advising culture whereby graduates and their family members will contribute years later in memory and appreciation of the outstanding academic advisement they received.

I believe that independent colleges are especially well suited to deliver this kind of promise and outcome. I think that what especially amazed and inspired me in the course of spending two days immersed in this culture, was how much these educators can and do with so little money. Incredible. This reminds me that some of the most important things students need, like attention and affirmation, and just good counsel, don’t necessarily take money. I was reminded of how student centered these places are. How entrepreneurial they are! How risk-taking they are. How extensive is the experimentation they are engaged in to find new ways to promote student success. How much encouragement senior administrators give to subordinates to bring good ideas to them to find a way to support and try out.

Much as it saddens me to see the ravages of the Great Recession on our public campuses, and the resulting impact of cuts on support for functions like advising, I do see this as an opportunity for independent colleges to further accentuate their strengths and differences.Now, as a point of perspective, I hasten to add that I was a full-time employee in public higher education for 32+ years and we are doing many good things for students too.

But there really isn’t anything quite like this independent college culture. And I believe the existence in our country of a higher education sector comprised most broadly of not-for-profit colleges of both public and private control, is good for both sectors. Our differences help keep us honest, and on our toes. And we all benefit from the awareness of the other. I know that I benefitted from the inspiration Betsy and I received from our North Carolina independent college colleagues sharing with us how much they do on so relatively little.

-John Gardner

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