President’s Blog – Higher Education Matters:

Thoughts from Southern Vermont College President Karen Gross

Archive for March, 2010

Making Memories with a Commencement Speaker

Thursday, March 25th, 2010 by Karen Gross


2010 Commencement speaker Kwan

At my high school graduation exactly four decades ago, there were 21 female students in the graduating class and Margaret Mead was the Commencement speaker.  Yes, really.  I still remember what she said, which makes her speech a rarity.  Many people cannot name their Commencement speakers from high school or college, let alone the content of their speeches.

Margaret Mead said that life was a constant pot of stew on the stove, and our task was to keep putting in ingredients.  Sometimes the stew tasted wonderful and at other times, the taste was just not quite right. Mead advised us that in those instances, we had to keep adding ingredients and in due time, the quality of the stew would improve.  In short, we control our own destiny and even when we do not, we need to keep adjusting to the changed circumstances.

Sage advice.  It is advice I still use today.

Some years after that, I was invited to give the Commencement address at an inner city high school in Philadelphia where I taught part-time.  By the time of the event, I had moved out of town, I was newly married, did not have much money for travel and was completing graduate school.  I turned down that invitation and have regretted it ever since. It would have been a great opportunity to pay it forward, and to give the students a taste of the amazing Commencement I had experienced in high school.

In one of life’s strange turns, I now have opportunities for a mulligan – a do-over and here’s how.  As a college president, I get to participate in the selection of Commencement speakers for the institution I lead.  And, the main criteria for me is finding someone who can make memories, someone whose presence and whose words will stay with students for decades to come. 

I want the three M’s for our graduates:  Margaret Mead-like Memories.

Now, the three M’s are not so easy to create and part of the reason, of course, is that Margaret Mead remains one of those iconoclastic figures of the 20th century.  But, I think I’ve found such a person for this year’s 83rd Commencement Exercises at Southern Vermont College.

Our speaker is an icon herself – figure skating champion, Michelle Kwan.  She has graced us with her grace, she has won more awards than any other skater in history, and she has worked hard to achieve success – no silver spoons here.  She has fallen and gotten up (literally and figuratively), she has pursued a dream, she has kept true to her values, and, as the nation’s first Public Envoy for Diplomacy for the U.S. State Department, she has become a role model for youth across the globe.   

Michelle is a memory-maker…and we are delighted to welcome her here to address the graduates of Southern Vermont College.

Reflecting on Olympic Coverage & Higher Ed

Friday, March 5th, 2010 by Karen Gross

I’ve watched every Olympics since I can remember and, unless I am mistaken, I’ve noticed a change in the coverage of the Games this time around. In the past, the commentators primarily focused on either those who medaled or those who were expected to medal and then failed to do so. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat were the reigning themes. And yes, there are exceptions to this rule like Eddie the Eagle and the Jamaican bobsled team.  But, the coverage at the Winter Games in Vancouver seemed different somehow.

At the opening ceremonies, one commentator observed that for some athletes (and some nations), just being in the opening ceremonies was reward enough.  As the event coverage progressed, I have been struck by the repeated references to athletes achieving a “personal best.”  In speed skating, figure staking, ice dancing among other sports, the athletes were being measured against themselves.  Of course winning still matters but uber-winning seemed less important.

Take this example.

Joannie Rochette, the Canadian figure skater whose mother passed away unexpectedly in Vancouver, was heralded for her effort (both in the short and long skate).  Yes, it was terrific that she medaled but what seemed to matter was that she kept skating a personal best.  

This changed approach to Olympic coverage provides an important lesson for higher education – actually, for education more generally.  If we just focus on the gold, silver and bronze students, we fail to recognize the achievements of our “non-medaling” students and in so doing, we fail to honor their tangible progress.  In many ways, the progress of the struggling students is more remarkable and more rewarding than the continued excellence of the A+ student.

In my years as a law professor, I count among my biggest successes moving a student from a grade of “D –“ in his first course taught by me to a grade of  “A-” in the third course of mine.  It is not the grades themselves that matter; it is the learning evidenced by the improved grade.  And, for the record, law school grading is blind, so I had no way to detect the name of the student in the evaluation process.

I think this non-medaling approach can also inform how we grade our students’ work in courses.  If we use a blended average of the papers and tests and oral exams (assuming that the testing devices themselves are quality measures of skill acquisition), we favor the consistent student or at least the student whose first score is relatively strong.  And, we most assuredly disfavor the late starter.

If we were to weight the later tests more, then we are rewarding learning, which is  — assuming basic competency — what matters.  Dropping the lowest test score in another method.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am not suggesting for a minute that the student who progresses from an F to a C- in Anatomy & Physiology is entitled to progress into a nursing program.  Reflecting on the Olympics, the very presence of an athlete there signals basic competence; even the weakest Olympic athletic exhibited strong skills.

Consider two students: one student has test scores across the semester of 80, 82, 82 and 76 (the last grade awarded), for a blended average of 80. Another student has a starting score of 63 and then progresses to a 75, 85 and 97 (last grade awarded) for a blended average of 80. Which has evidenced the greatest progress and in which would one have the most confidence in terms of future trajectory?  I’d take the second student any time. 

It is unclear to me whether the shift in Olympic rhetoric has changed as a conscious effort to contextualize winning in light of our miserable economy or the death of the Georgian luger or the catastrophe in Haiti and now Chile. What is clear to me is that the current broadcasters are reframing and expanding the definition of winning. Yes, a gold medal is one way to win. But there are other ways.

Winning within higher education for vulnerable students has a lot to do with improvement and progression. Sure, there are vulnerable students who are academic Olympians and these students progress into some of America’s most elite institutions of higher learning.  But, there are other vulnerable students for whom for whom personal bests are important and continuing benchmarks on a pathway to learning and success.

With the Games over, the broader measure of winning promoted by the commentators in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver is worth remembering and periodically circling back to.  It can help how we frame and evaluate winning in higher education.

A Liberal Arts and Sciences College: The SVC Approach

Monday, March 1st, 2010 by Karen Gross

In the current issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Southern Vermont College and Bennington College are featured as two schools that are changing the paradigm for what it truly means to be a liberal arts college in the 21st century. Both institutions think the “traditional” way is not working and have charted a new path.

 (Click here to read the article.)

SVC is committed to training the leaders of tomorrow to have critical thinking and problem solving skills.  With a liberal arts core, we are fostering learning through a laboratory, hands-on approach, rooted in engagement in the community and partnerships with those outside the walls of the institution.

The Chronicle article captures the essence of SVC, and I am pleased that, together with our neighbor Bennington College, we are seen as places that are working to provide quality higher education in a changing world.

Our students, faculty and staff can be proud that our story is being told. I, too, am proud.