John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Let’s Run the Campus Like the New Zealanders Run Their Customs

Yesterday I arrived, with my wife, for the first time in New Zealand, entering at Queenstown, the adventure tourism capitol of the world, where I encountered the most thorough Customs review I have encountered anywhere in the world. The New Zealanders are serious about protecting their beautiful country from 2 things: 1) people that would overstay their welcome and thus increase the country’s population and add more obligations for the taxpayer; and 2) natural, biologicial, infestations that could be carried in on clothing, in food, etc and wreak havoc on the landscape and agricultural resources of the nation. I answered a question honestly on the Customs arrival form that yes, I was bringing in to the country a pair of hiking boots. They were definitely removed and inspected. And these people have good reason to want to limit excess immigration: this is an incredibly desirable place to live and it could soon be overwhelmed by others fleeing the world’s craziness (like we have in the US). Who wouldn’t want to live in a country with universal health care, relatively low crime, no great disparities in income and wealth, a wonderful climate, a passion for peace and preserving their environment, and no guns in every house!

But what really captured my attention when I entered the country was that we had to prove (by some verifiable means upon entry) that we had a specific plan for leaving the country—e.g. like a receipt for purchased airline reservations out of the country. And suddenly it hit me: hey, they aren’t trying to retain me. They really are serious about wanting me to leave! Now this got me thinking (a dangerous thing for those who work with me)…

So what if we ran the campus like the New Zealanders run their Customs’ operation: demanding that every student had a plan for exit? What if we had policies and practices insuring that students did leave, after they accomplished their purposes and ours for them, just like New Zealand has a policy that insures that Betsy Barefoot and I leave after we attain our purposes for coming here (a great vacation that enhances our learning too!).

What if we told the students, yes, this is a beautiful place. You are going to have the time of your life. We are going to stimulate you in many ways you can’t even yet imagine. We are going to transform you, give you a new sense of purpose and the mental tools to live a much richer life. You will love this place so much you will never want to leave. But you must. We are going to be the sanest place you ever visited. You will be safer here than any place you have lived because there are no guns on campus. And every student will have a special student health insurance policy that will protect you from any medical challenges during college. What if as the students entered we succeeded in dramatically raising their expectations for how they would perform and what they would experience subsequently?

But no, that is not what we do. Instead of trying to get them to leave the best living experience of their lives, all we can think about is “retaining” them. It doesn’t matter how long they stay. Just as long as they pay (note the rhyme). Our only purpose for them is what they do for us: pay us. Just as long as they comprise those FTE’s, we aim to please (note the rhyme again).

You say Gardner jests. No, he once had a wife who told him repeatedly not to attempt to tell jokes because they failed miserably. Actually, I am being very serious. I think that if we could somehow be more deliberate in our transformative roles as higher educators, we could create campus experiences where students would never want to leave—but we would make them do so. However, as our student performance rates suggest, and our obsession on retaining students as opposed to providing them with high impact learning experiences, this is not what we do.

But we could. And a few places do. Where does your place fall out in Gardner’s fantasy about running a campus like New Zealand runs its country?

-John N. Gardner

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