Reflections on 25 Years in HESA: A Conversation with Robert Nash and Jackie Gribbons
These reflections have really been wonderful, and the questions and issues to which I will respond are due in large measure to Deb Hunter's timely queries to Robert Nash and me. They surely did get the 'ol mind clicking, and conversations with Robert and Deb about our program, its history and its future have been down right fun!
REFLECTION ON KEY PLAYERS
When I think of the key players who have played major roles in the development of this hallmark program, I have to go back to 1967 when Roland Patzer, the Dean of Students, appointed Richard (Dick) Powers as the new Dean of Men. Dick was the only student affairs professional from a nationally acclaimed program-yes, our first linkage with Indiana University. Roland was politically astute-he saw opportunities, knew how to venture forward and who to involve. Within several years of speculation, I believe that the HESA program grew out of informal dream schemes between Roland and Dick, and I was included very shortly thereafter. We sat down and carved out what we believed would encompass a viable professional training program using the best of the resources at our disposal and thinking ahead to how the program would evolve within the ensuing years. Many planning meetings later, we presented a plan to Jim Peterson, chair of the counseling program and overall administrator of the umbrella department, whose support and encouragement were instrumental and invaluable.
Our first real official act was to recruit and hire a program chair . . . a name now legend, Kenneth Saurman. A feisty red-headed humanist with whom I interacted several times daily despite the fact that his office was on the second floor and mine on the fifth. Ken was just the right person for this important undertaking, and his leadership, sensitivity, and collegial style helped to move us through some pretty tough growing pains.
I will never forget 1979, the year that Ken went on sabbatical leave. He asked me to serve as the interim chair during his absence, and for my first act we placed each of our graduate candidates in a folder all their own . . . contrary to the two-foot high stack of paper clipped applications we typically circulated at the time of admissions. (Although we agreed on a lot of things, organization was not one of them). That year, we admitted 22 students and ALL of them accepted and were graduated from our program! We were heavy into recruitment, and it paid off in quality people once again. Beyond any of our predictions, the following year Ken became very ill, and I continued to serve in his absence.
Whenever I reminisce about important early people in the HESA program, I think of Jackie Gribbons, Keith Miser, and John Moore. For me, Jackie embodies much that is noteworthy about the program, because, in my estimation, without her early, and continuing, efforts to help build a quality graduate experience, there would be no HESA program as we know it today. But another name stands out as well-Kenneth P. Saurman. I became directly involved with the program through his encouragement, wonderful friendship, and scholarly collaboration. I first met Ken at a College faculty meeting in 1970, an encounter I will never forget. During the early seventies, Vietnam was an issue that still divided our faculty and I had orated interminably at this particular College meeting about individual freedom, the right to dissent, and faculty/student power. I remember advocating that as a College we ought to vote not to renew our professional accreditation (NCATE) because this organization was authoritarian and reactionary. Luckily, the motion was resoundingly defeated by my less nihilistic, more clear-headed colleagues. Ken, however, at his very first College faculty meeting, took the floor just before the vote and passionately supported my proposal. Although he did not save the day with his eloquence, he and I, two 1960s hippie idealists, became fast friends.
I was immediately struck by Ken's boyish enthusiasm about everything, especially the student personnel program-as it was then called. There were simply no restraints on his exuberance for this program. He drew me in from the very beginning, and our friendship grew into a professional collaboration. As members of the same department-Organizational and Human Resource Development-we were in very close proximity to each other. He coordinated the student personnel program, and I was a foundational studies professor; during those early years, we would constantly seek each other out whenever we needed to talk about teaching, or scheme to influence an upcoming faculty vote on some issue or another, or share a provocative book one of us had just read. And, then, one day in late 1971 the invitation came: "Robert, how about teaching a course with me in the program?" When I recovered from the initial shock over the dreadful prospect of teaching a content I did not possess, I asked Ken one question: "What could I possibly offer to your students? I'm a philosopher, not an administrator. I have never even lived in a residence hall." Without a moment's hesitation, Ken responded: "I am a philosopher too. You're not so special. In fact, student personnel is all about being skilled leaders and educators. Don't you teach Plato's Republic? Aren't Plato's leaders philosophers? Why would you expect anything less from student personnel administrators?"
Ken hooked me, and he knew it. The following year found us co-teaching a course in adult development, the first of many cooperative teaching ventures. During the 1970s, we also collaborated on a series of articles defining a new role for higher education administrators, a role we called "student development educators." This decade-long scholarly project led to a series of national consultancies, professional convention presentations, and the development of a graduate student affairs curriculum here at the University. Under Ken's leadership, inspiration, and indefatigable commitment and attention, the HESA program was off and running in the decade of the seventies. And I was delighted to be a small part of it, along with Jackie, Keith Miser, and John Moore.
REFLECTION ON CHANGES OVER PAST 25 YEARS
Let me address the obvious . . . things like composition and size of the faculty and each of our student classes. Perhaps one of the most dramatic changes in the faculty was our nearly total dependence upon adjunct faculty from within the student affairs ranks to full-time tenure track. For years, except for the program chair and interdisciplinary buddies of the program (namely, Robert Nash), we depended upon dedicated teaching administrators like Keith Miser, John Moore, Paul Oliaro, Pat Brown, and others from the past who played a major role in the growth and direction of this program.
Change was also reflected through the leadership of the program chair. Throughout, our program values have remained quality driven. With the untimely death of Ken Saurman, we continued to move forward, and our program chairs have been of high commitment and diverse strength . . . Robert Young and David Holmes . . . all recognized national leaders in the
academy . . . and currently, Deborah Hunter who has brought exemplary leadership, vision, and national connection to the HESA program.
Change also included program emphasis . . . always looking forward and forecasting what the profession will need from its emerging leaders. We have undergone name changes to more accurately reflect who we are preparing for what . . . having come from strictly student affairs to the big picture of higher education. The faculty has regularly assessed the curriculum and introduced new courses and new requirements that reflect the values we have regarding the needs of the profession. In addition, the practicum program which grew from a pilot project during our first years has included over 200 different offerings at UVM and nearby colleges and universities. Our students have had everything to say about these diversified internships as they have been developed, modified, and sustained throughout the history of the program. Having been so closely associated with this aspect of our curriculum, I am especially proud of my colleagues and our students who have worked so collaboratively to assure solid credit internship experiences.
Finally, a program of national prominence . . . this was not a goal but a by-product of all of the exceptional students who have graduated from this program and who have gained and earned recognition as professionals. I believe we had national visibility from the beginning . . . each of us who were serving as faculty were involved as educational leaders in our area of specialty, and every major national association was represented-ACPA, NASPA, NAWE, ACUHO, ACUI, etc. Vermont was already on the map. And this national leadership did then and still remains as a value for our students to hold . . . to make presentations, work on task forces and committees, hold office, conduct and publish research, make a difference.
Ken Saurman always dreamed huge dreams when he talked about the potential of the program. Working on a very limited budget as a half-time faculty member in the early 1970s, Ken had the ability and charisma to draw on the voluntary efforts of many adjunct faculty to create a praiseworthy preparation program for student affairs administrators. More than anything, when he took his students to the national conferences Ken wanted the "Vermont crew" to get the best jobs at the best universities. And so he struggled to improve the quality of their training, experientially and intellectually, each year he was at the University. He continually experimented with new course offerings. The curriculum shifted its recurring thematic motif many times throughout the seventies, moving from an emphasis on administration, to student development, to adult development, to service-learning, to out-of-classroom education. Ken and Keith Miser taught a "culminating seminar" in the final semester for second-year students that changed its professional focus each term, depending on what was topical in any given year. While the evolution of the program was certainly exciting and charged throughout the seventies, Ken knew that as the program entered the eighties it was time for it to become more professionally and academically stable, less susceptible to the fads and vagaries of the field. Sadly, his vision for the eighties was cut short by his tragic death at age 50, a victim of a rare cancer.
In my opinion, more than any single person in the last decade, Professor Deborah Hunter has striven in her own remarkable way to fulfill Ken's vision for the program. I am sure that Ken would be proud of the HESA program today, as it has progressed under Deb's leadership. In the early eighties, the program went into a temporary hiatus as it reeled under the shock of Ken's loss. Later, under the guidance of David Holmes who presided over the recovery of the program, Deb was hired. During their tenure together, the curriculum solidified; a better working rapprochement between student affairs staff and faculty occurred; and a doctoral program was started. Student applications increased exponentially as the Vermont reputation continued to mushroom. When David left, Deb became the program coordinator, and, in my estimation, under her aegis, HESA truly became a nationally reputable graduate program. A superb administrator and extraordinary tactician, Deb led the program through a series of vital curriculum transformations. She also worked vehemently to enhance the reputation of the HESA program within her own college, something her predecessors unfortunately took for granted. With the hiring of Professor Kathy Manning-a first-class scholar and teacher-seven years ago, I believe this program is well positioned to improve its high national ranking in the years ahead.
WHAT SEEMS UNFINISHED AND REFLECTIONS ON THE FUTURE
I do not believe we are ever as good as we can be . . . that we can always do what we do better . . . so, for me, everything is yet to be finished. What has been so encouraging is that our students have kept all of us at the cutting edge-by helping to evaluate our present status, by taking bold steps in seeking change for the better, and by taking leadership roles as colleagues with faculty, practica supervisors, and assistantship providers. Quite frankly, I believe that our students have had as much to do (and sometimes more to do) with the success of this program than any of us, and I hold an expectation that our students must feel an obligation and right to do so.
To reflect on the future is to reflect on the future of higher education itself. I believe that we will see monumental changes in how we go about the process and content of learning and education . . . not only who will remain/emerge as key players, but what and how we teach for whom. Surely technology will play a major role as well in the vision of institutional leaders who will help to shape the future . . . hopefully, a growing number of those leaders will have come from within the UVM ranks. It's challenging and scary . . . what kind of opportunities and roles will our graduates face in the future? What more can we do to bring hope and reality for our competent women who aspire to top positions? How can we truly move toward a multicultural immersion that offers the hopeful diversity of the higher education and whole world societies?
James Bishop once said that the "future is an opaque mirror. Anyone who tries to look into it sees nothing but the dim outlines of an old worried face." I emphatically disagree. As I contemplate the future of HESA, I do not see an "old worried face." Instead, I concur with John Dewey that "to the fully alive being, the future is not ominous but a promise; it surrounds the present like a halo." For the first time in the history of the program, in the fall of 1995, we will hopefully have two full-time tenured members of the faculty-Deb Hunter and Kathy Manning, two nationally visible higher education scholars and leaders. Fortunately, we will continue to have Jackie Gribbons' wisdom, inspiration, and practicum leadership as a part-time member of our faculty for a number of years. And, God and colleagues willing, I will stay on in the program until I retire some years down the road. (My wife, Madelyn, grisly teases me that I will be teaching in some capacity somewhere until just before they haul me off to the cemetery for final internment.) And so, with John Dewey, I would say that truly our future is a "promise," a "halo [that] surrounds [our] present."
What needs to be done to fulfill our promise further? Allow me to be a humble utopian here. We must develop a greater number of assistantships for our students, in many kinds of venues at the University. We must intensify what I think is already an exemplary effort to increase student diversity in the HESA program. We need to find mutually creative and productive ways to work together with student affairs professionals at the University so that theory and practice are genuinely conjoined, in a form that our patron saint, John Dewey, would laud. We must continue to craft a rigorous doctoral program in higher education and student affairs administration in a way that strengthens, rather than detracts from, our twenty-five year attempt to create the premier master's program in the United States. We need to work harder to define what makes us truly unique in our intellectual and professional orientation from other graduate programs in the country that seek the same top students we do. And, as a faculty, we must continue to be professionally prominent: we must publish in the best journals, write authoritative books, teach innovatively and energetically, and advise compassionately and untiringly.
REFLECTIONS ON HOW OUR STUDENTS HAVE CHANGED
We sometimes think they have greater academic potential (GPA and test scores) . . . they come with more professional experience . . . more of them are female . . . there is greater diversity from many dimensions-people of color, ethnicity, preference . . . and a growing number of assistantships are outside of residential life. All of this has had a marked affect upon the breadth and depth of what our students can and should learn from one another for our students comprise such an invaluable learning opportunity. I have often said that if we do not value our students as equal partners with our faculty, we could just as well offer this course of study by correspondence.
Some things never change . . . a feeling of family and support . . . high energy . . . developmental stages . . . strong allies . . . lots of questioning . . . wanting to do/be the BEST.
In a twenty-five-year academic affiliation with the program, I have seen nothing but a steady improvement in the all-around intellectual quality of students who apply to the HESA program. In fact, the most recent HESA classes are among the most outstanding classes intellectually I have ever seen. I am of two minds as I think about my students over a quarter of a century in the program. In one sense, students tend to remain pretty much the same. Some, as Ecclesiastes says, always find that "study is a weariness of the flesh" (12:12). Others rejoice with Elbert Hubbard that academics are fine as long as they "put something in the pocket." And some rhapsodize with Ben Jonson that education is, indeed, the "smelling of the lamp."
My other mind, however, observes that over the years the vast majority of students in the HESA program has become far more serious about classroom learning. In the seventies and eighties, I recall painfully that some students demanded that their studies be directly related to their assistantships; they would drop completely out of class involvement and become surly if theory-to-practice connections were not immediately perceptible. In the nineties, though, I find that an increasing number of students appears to want knowledge for its own sake-subject matter that will help them to become better human beings in all aspects of their lives, in addition to the professional. Thus, for me, HESA students' writing is more probing; their reading more penetrating; their motivation to pursue an idea wherever it will lead more insistent; and their overall excitement about the vitality of ideas more intense. Many students are striving to become professionals in the truest sense of the word: people able to profess eloquently and persuasively to a variety of publics what they believe is significant about the work that they do.
For me, it is the constant stimulation and learning . . . I have learned SO MUCH from our students and my colleagues. It is an opportunity to teach through a variety of vehicles . . . from the daily interaction to advising, modules, and seminars. For me, it is like being home . . . so much so that I remain at it even during my so-called retirement.
"Who is rich? He that is content. Who is that? Nobody" (Benjamin Franklin). I say that Franklin is both right and wrong. He is right in that it is impossible for any teacher ever to be content in the HESA program. He is wrong in that my personal teaching experience with HESA students through the years has been a genuine source of riches, because my discontent over my frequent failures to motivate and challenge my students keep me coming back in order to do it better. The intellectual challenges that each new generation of HESA students has posed for me-an ethereal philosopher who himself has never had administrative experience in student affairs-are the greatest gift any professor can ever receive, I believe. I return each year because I feel that I am part of something fine. HESA is a genuine community, the only one I have ever found at the University. I am not naive. We are certainly not a monolithic or blissfully contented community. At times, we are divided. Strife occasionally reigns as we argue, cajole, cry, and, then, try to reconcile. We are infinitely diverse in our backgrounds, politics, philosophies, religions, and professional interests. But we stand together in our singular commitment to advance a central principle in our work: each person in the American university must be treated with respect and dignity regardless of difference, because each is capable of excelling in some fashion, given the proper motivation and effort. I have kept at it for over a quarter of a century, because I know of no other defining principle more important for creating a sense of e pluribus unum in a university.
REFLECTIONS ON A PERSONAL ANECDOTE FOR THE PAST 25 YEARS
I have been forced by Deb Hunter to think metaphorically, now she wants an anecdote- this does not come easy for me. Twenty-five years have zoomed-and, I mean zoomed! I look back on a number of significant things . . . the good friends and colleagues I have been so fortunate to make . . . the opportunity I have had to remain in a teaching role . . . the chance to be with something so worthy from the beginning. . . a feeling of deep pride in the accomplishment of so many . . . and a feeling of deep humility in sometimes knowing that I, too, have made a difference.
So, I think of our collective parts and how good we have been for one another . . . all of us have brought this program to where it is today and our successors will take it to where it will be in the future . . . what a trip!
One of Ken Saurman's favorite aphorisms was
Friedrich Nietzsche's: "he who has a why to live can bear
almost any how." For Ken, the major purpose of professional
preparation was to get students to concentrate as much on the
"whys" as on the "hows." Thanks largely to
Ken, this has become my idee fixe in everything I do in the
program, and the standard against which I measure my
effectiveness as an educator. I remember a HESA alumna calling me
a few years ago wanting a reference for doctoral work. I asked
her why she desired to give up a well-paying job, high status,
and professional satisfaction to go back to graduate school where
life is generally powerless and poverty-stricken. She said
ruefully: "I am lost. It is time to re-examine my whys. I
know they are there somewhere. You and Ken were right."
Requiescas in pace, Ken, and God bless!