Remarks on the Occasion of the Inauguration of Dr. Karan Powell

By: John N. Gardner, President
John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education
November 4, 2016

GardnerI am here today as one of American higher education’s leading innovators and thought leaders to convey my respect to her and for the University in a very public manner. I am here to welcome her into our exclusive club.

I have worked with her and her team, especially Associate Provost Gwen Hall, since 2012 on three externally guided strategic planning processes in which the University developed comprehensive action plans to totally rethink and redesign their entire approaches to the education of new first-time and transfer students. In the course of this process, the University deconstructed and redesigned 50 different courses to increase student learning and success and reduce DWFI grade rates, thereby increasing “first-time completers”—those who successfully complete their first course with the University and move on to take additional courses. That outcome is essential for your academic and financial success.

As a former military educator in the Air Force, I fully appreciate the importance of what you are doing for the men and women of our country. I served as an adjunct college professor in my off-duty time at our on-base extension of the University of South Carolina. In doing so, I discovered that my military, active-duty students were incredibly motivated. What they lacked in previous educational preparation they more than made up for in discipline, maturity, courage, risk-taking, intelligence, intellectual creativity and curiosity. So, thanks to the Air Force, I discovered my career—through college teaching in the military setting to active-duty military personnel. And that is precisely a significant part of your mission.

As I think about the person and the institution we are honoring today, three themes strike me as most salient: Service, staying focused and building a legacy

Just as I learned about service in the military, so did Karan. She was raised by two Navy parents whose whole lives were about service. And her whole career has been about service. She knows to her core that the APUS mission is educating those who serve. And she has an expanded definition of those who serve, beyond active-duty military, veterans and their families to other adult Americans who aspire to serve others through professions. Under President Powell, APUS will find and serve more and more Americans who serve. And who want to serve.

In both my conversations with Karan and other University staff, I have discovered that she sees herself the way others see her: focused. She is described as being “laser-like focused!” “Student success,” “student success,” “student success.” Get used to it. That’s the mantra. You are going to hear more and more about it, from her and everyone who works for her.

In preparation for these remarks, I asked Karan: “what would you like the concluding statement of your legacy to be?” And she answered: “that the University became recognized for what it is, not what it is not, for its strengths, and not for its tax status.”

I know that she is passionate about that artificial distinction going away—based on the experiences of your students, those who live with them, those that ultimately employ them AND the all-important perspectives of those who evaluate the University, especially your accreditors.

To do that President Powell has to lead a crusade to eliminate the reality of widespread prejudice about for-profit higher education.

So how would she want the University known instead? By its reputation for quality and value. How does any institution achieve a desired reputation? First and foremost, we are known by our students! You must have more graduates—it’s not enough to simply have had attendees! For APUS, it must include a combination or synergy of: educational quality, achieving student success, innovation in on-line education, and ultimate recognition of acceptability and comparable status to non-profits.

A caution: history is full of revolutionary ideas, people, causes, and movements. And all too often as they developed in reaction to and against the failures of the status quo (in this case adequately providing higher education for those who serve) they are gradually overcome by a desire to be accepted by external higher status peers. And so they gradually become more orthodox and give up their revolutionary zeal.

Somehow, APUS and President Powell have to stay focused on your unique mission and pursue that with relentless innovation and unyielding commitment to student success and quality in the on-line environment. If you become like the rest of the pack, you will have lost your uniqueness. Karan understands that. She will achieve one and avoid the other.

I spent the past six years working with my wife, Dr. Betsy Barefoot, and three other prominent educators on a book, just published last May. In this work we attempted to distill all that we had learned about educational innovation that had improved student success outcomes and that suggested greater hope for American institutions. Everything I know about Dr. Powell tells me she understands and can lead APUS in perfect congruence with these six core principles of what matters most.

  1. Learning—the fundamental business of this business—student learning, employee learning, organizational learning
  2. Relationships—people learn in relationships—supportive ones—and you have to create unique on-line ways to form these
  3. Expectations—you have to inculcate them to predict high performance just as your students experienced in their military service
  4. Alignment—all components and people of the University have to be on the same sheet of music
  5. Leadership—has to be manifested at all levels
  6. Assessment—a focus on improvement must be constant, relentless, and used as a basis for decision making

I predict you will see Karan focus on all six of these—and not because they came from my most recent book!

Today marks an important shift in the history of this unique university. You were created as an “open” “access” university. From now on you are to be known as a “success” university. There are important differences.

Open access institutions are primarily focused on getting students in the door, not out the door. They are focused on minimizing student requirements, which are perceived as “barriers” to continuing enrollment and revenue.

Success institutions have different policies and educational practices than access institutions. They have more policies, rules, requirements, that lead to student success. They make students do things –not leaving some things optional—that increase student success.

So in the case of APUS, you now have more of a “basic training” (or Orientation) for first-time students. You are providing more structure, more support, for what students need to be more successful. You have taken more responsibility for student learning. You have not simply blamed the students for their shortcomings. Your deans and department chairs are now focused on the most successful components of the curriculum for new students: gateway courses. All your employees are spending more time talking about what matters most. You are making more decisions based on data. You have had the courage to put everything on the table in strategic planning exercises characterized by openness, non-defensiveness, and academic freedom. And you have done these things with remarkable alacrity by the standard of conventional institutions.

You have not only talked about why students are failing in gateway courses; you have actually done something about it. You are holding deans, department heads and faculty more accountable for these kinds of outcomes. And President Powell insists on internal alignment—especially, complete integration of academic and student affairs—something few other places have been able to accomplish.

She is able, but she can’t do this alone. Your new President is a known commodity of leadership—but she still has unfulfilled potential. She is predictable. Thus, you are going to have a stable transition. That’s a good thing. But she needs your help. She will only be as good as the ideas and counsel she gets from all of you. So don’t be overly deferential. Let her have the benefit of your experience, knowledge, insights –as well as your own hopes, dreams, aspirations, for yourself and the University.

Her success will be your success. And your success will be her success. And the success of your students will be the success of all of you.

It takes a whole village/University, to raise a new President. I welcome then with praise, optimism, excitement, confidence, affection, America’s newest university president. I know you will remember where you came from and where you are going. And we are going to go with you.

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