So straight up and straight out there, this trip was paid for by me, and it was taken during my leave. So if you think Lawrie is talking nonsense about his impressions of US HE, or I have not provided enough detail, or I need to do more analysis I am more than happy to say, in the words of my hosts – y’all can bite me! This is my personal travelogue.
I have been planning this trip for a few months. Starting in Connecticut, visiting friends whose son started college this year, down to New York, then on to the Carolinas.
I landed in Connecticut, it’s a nice place. It’s green, and rural. It’s got great wildlife.
It is always great to visit these friends – they have known H1 since they were at University together. Their son is great, he’s at a college in Boston, just started. I have never witnessed this, I was a mature student and married when I eventually went to University. And when I left home at 16 there were no mobiles, my father gave me a bag of 2 pence pieces (10p got you 3 minutes).
During the few days I was in CT there were a lot of texts coming in, and going back out. Reminding me that those first few months at University are really important – getting students from that first point of contact through their first assignments is key in their retention, in the US I was struck by the number of processes, applications and initiatives that seem to be in place to support those new students. As I left, notification came in for the Fall (Autumn #eyeroll) Parents Weekend.
Parents weekends are activity driven (tours, sports games, lectures, performances), our friends had a list of things they could sign up for. These tickets are purchased, and the purpose is to connect parents to student life, a sense of the environment in their child is experiencing.
Next stop was New York! Having passed through several times this trip we decided that we would, make a visit of it. There are more than 200 four-year public and private colleges and universities in the State of New York, and many of them if not entirely based in New York City, have campuses there. It seemed where ever you walk you see signs CUNY, SUNY and a myriad art, drama and theatre schools. The thing that surprised me was that many of the universities and colleges cost less than UK universities to attend. I was also surprised by the retention rates of some of the universities – in some cases as low as 52%, though this is sometimes about how it is reported, and measured.
One of the most impressive things about New York is the High Line. This is a park, built on a disused elevated section of railroad. It’s 1.5 miles long, and runs (depending on your viewpoint) south from the 34th St Hudson Yards to Chelsea Market. The impressive thing is the way the local community got behind the project and made it happen, raising over $150mill. The High Line also has public artworks and exhibitions, and is FREE. I think one of my favourite things is the artistic and political expression that runs through and alongside the buildings of the High Line.
American Museum of Natural History
We forget how lucky we have become in the UK. Entrance to Museums is free, and whilst the collecting tanks have suggested prices for admission, to support the institution, there are no enforcers.
The AMNH is also “Free”. But you queue to get in and you must speak to the desk guard to get in, who makes it clear that there are people who don’t pay to get in, but that is not the American way, and that your $23 is the $23 that will make all the difference.
Once you are in, it is an excellent museum. It will surprise no one that I wanted to head for the dinosaurs! The displays are excellent, informative and well laid out. But it also worth reading the history of this particular natural history with a critical eye – It is clear that the museum wants you to understand the USA is and always has been the preeminent paleontologists. When reading through these “historical accounts” looking for familiar stories such as that of the discovery of the early dinosaurs, names such as Mantell, Hawkins, Lyell were absent, instead they seemed to have been grouped into a simple paragraph, referring to English Victorian “Collectors”, and made no reference to the papers and presentations they gave in their careers at the Royal Society. In fact more space was given to how Thomas Jefferson had once written a scientific paper describing a the bones of a large carnivorous animal, that later turned out to be a giant sloth (vegetarian). Even in museums it is worth remembering that propaganda is present, and that truth is written by the curators.
What do I say about Margaret Mead? Donna Lanclos won’t shut up about her when she gives talks – so I thought I’d better see that exhibit.
There was something about this exhibit that both enticed me, with her rigour, and all of the objects from Mead’s everyday life, but also made me uneasy, uncomfortable to the point almost of repulsion at some aspects. In particular, the AMNH have included the Plains and Woodland Indians in their exhibits, and it felt they were relegating them to the “natural” world (not that I see humans as outside of nature), there was a sense of dehumanizing condescension in the way in which Indigenous people were framed. There are all of these museums in New York about art and culture. But the AMNH framed these people as “nature” along with fossils and geological specimens.
This is one of the moments when I am putting a pin in. I am not sure how this relates to my work, but I have had those same feelings in some other circumstances. I don’t know if it is a metaphor or something else.
The first place I visited in North Carolina was a Private Liberal Arts College, one of the top 10 in the US. Having lunch with Directors and Heads there and listening to them discuss their plans I got an overwhelming sense of caring deeply about the student experience. Going for a walk around the campus active learning was in evidence everywhere, flexible spaces, open spaces, quiet spaces. Technology in the rooms felt like part of the furniture, and the from what I saw there was good practice in evidence in teaching. This was a small school 170 faculty staff, 500 administrative staff and about 2000 students. Of course when I say small I am referring to the numbers, the acreage is is a little different, with full size sports stadiums, theatres, student residencies…. I liked it a lot. More than that, talking to Directors of Library, Innovation and Instructional Design they have some serious pedagogical and technology plans in process. This week also saw them launch a huge initiative into diversifying the STEM subjects.
Wednesday was a day travelling to Asheville in the mountains – a small university with bears wandering around the campus, woodchucks gambolling on the college lawns and a plethora of iced coffees and cold brews. Asheville is glorious mix of hippy and hipster. The main reason for the visit was a catch up with my driver’s daughter. They had recently had parents weekend and she had missed it. So this was a great opportunity to see mountain views (or it would have been if the visibility wasn’t zero), and to have a look at a different kind of campus.
However, the best thing about this visit – the entirely Vegan restaurant – well done to Dr Lanclos’ Elder Teen!
Onward to South Carolina
An early start, and on to a public university in South Carolina, where we talked about active learning and culture change to a group of senior staff. This is the fastest growing institution in South Carolina (there are 57 HEIs in the state). The big issue they identified on the day is retention. I had a great time in the workshops, they were engaging, welcoming and lived up to their reputation for hospitality.
As some of you know when I talk about organisational models I use Schein – one of the things he talks about is Artefacts – and as well as buildings and technology and equipment, it can also include things like mission statements and mottos. On the day I asked if any alums from other colleges knew their old college motto (I often use the example of wife’s – Do Different – which as stayed with her since graduating). Cliff, the Provost, 40 years after graduating, recalled “Let learning be cherished where liberty has arisen.” He had been to a small North Carolina Liberal Arts College, one with 2000 students, and 170 faculty staff, and an excellent student experience. I know it’s obvious, but those 3 or 4 short years have a huge impact on who we are, where we go and what we do. Those of us who can impact the student experience need to remember we are privileged.
Then it was time for another
There were visits to other institutions, and I learnt a lot about the system and the changes that are coming, and the emerging tech that people are deploying, and mainstream tech that they are rethinking. It was a great trip.
I’ll sign off by thanking all the people whom I met and made time for me. Thanks to @DanielLynds for the photos (and to Dan and Sundi for the gifts!), Also Cindy Jennings for inviting us to her institution, and for Southern Hospitality. I was also very lucky to be hosted by the Lanclos clan including Indy and Elder Teen. And #thatwoman also acted as tour guide, driving me around North and South Carolina to visit these institutions.