"Arts of Democracy and Public Achievement" is the focus of the sophomore experience at Colgate University, a campus I visited last week. I went to Colgate to hear what they were doing in leadership and residential education and to propose ideas from Deeper Learning in Leadership. As most of my trips go, I hoped to contribute but I also learned a great deal more than I ever anticipated.
I was fascinated with the way that Colgate has reconceptualized the role of student affairs staff. Adam Weinberg, the former Dean of the College, was a sociology professor who took on the role of Dean during a particularly pivotal transition time. Colgate had determined that they wanted to have a more substantial focus on residential education that could help their students learn critical lessons to engage in contemporary communities. Part of this initiative would result in Colgate buying all of the off-campus fraternity and sorority houses to make them part of the campus-wide residential education program (a bit controversial, to say the least). Adam worked with the staff to redefine their work in ways that reflected John Dewey's ideas of democratic education. As such, staff rethought and began to pursue their roles as catalysts and supporters of students' learning rather than as care-takers, programmers, and administrators. While the transition to this model is incomplete, it is obvious that students are responding well and that student affairs staff have discerned a role that makes them more central in the University learning community.
The irony of Adam's leadership in bringing about the shift toward a democratic education perspective is that he and others labeled this as an educational break-through, rather than the rediscovery of the original purposes of student personnel work. The first chapter of Deeper Learning in Leadership retraces the philosophical origins of the field and how student personnel drifted from democratic education principles to student services and then student development work. I can hardly wait until people begin to read this chapter and begin to realize the opportunity that has been missed over the last 50+ years.
While Colgate's initiative is wonderful, one tragedy of their discovery of the "Arts of Democracy and Public Achievement" is that decision makers had no clue that Dewey's views were to have been incoporated in student personnel work from the early 20th century. It's incredible that Colgate has the courage to define a new role for student affairs and that they are using this new role to forge a different kind of university - an engaged university that helps students learn how to conduct themselves in a democratic society. They have also defined a process of engaged learning that allows students, faculty, and staff to make a difference in their own community. What incredible gifts the discovery of new ways of learning have brought - too bad that the lack of clarity of student affairs work allowed these possibilities to linger undiscovered for so long.
A great person I met through last year's LeaderShape Institute brought me to Colgate - Tim Mansfield, Assistant Dean of Students. I am always amazed at how much I learn from going to other settings, attempting to help them, but all the time benefitting more myself. This example will forever by etched in my memory as I continue to work to advocate ideas from Deeper Learning in Leadership. Note to self - how many other places have similar struggles that originate from a lack of knowing? How can we become more informed so that needed changes come faster and easier?