Georgia on my mind: A distinctive experience

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by Dr Paul Gentle

I was fortunate to be able to visit several higher education institutions in and around Atlanta, Georgia last week, in the generous company of a cohort of Top Management Programme 31 delegates. The programme was led by Dr Tom Kennie & Professor Robin Middlehurst. I was most struck by Georgia Gwinnett, a public undergraduate, teaching-only college whose mission is to be a 21st century access institution. It was newly-built and launched in 2006 with 118 inaugural students, now providing a liberal arts education to almost 10,000. The campus provides beautifully-designed buildings and sports and leisure facilities which are well-used by students. Given Georgia Gwinnett College’s mission to engage large numbers of students whose parents did not experience higher education themselves, tuition fees are far from prohibitive, and are limited to a full-time year equivalent of under $3,500 – just over £2,000.

Visiting on a Friday (often a quiet day on US campuses) gives a tangible sense of the engagement and inspiration demonstrated by Georgia Gwinnett’s students. It is immediately obvious that the college and its organisational culture is built on clear and focused educational principles:

  • Harnessing innovation in learning technology to support student success
  • Providing an integrated educational experience in which service learning and other extra-curricular activities play a key role and are actively managed by the College
  • Engagement by all faculty in teaching and mentoring as a hallmark of the institution

There is a deliberately-stated intention to act as a model for innovation in education and administration. All on-campus services and facilities that are not directly linked to delivering the curriculum are outsourced, and the college was designed in this way from the outset.

The founding president, Dan Kaufman, and current president Stas Preczewski, are both former senior officers from West Point Military Academy, and they have applied their experience and vision to creating and sustaining an institution which breeds success – the opening sentences of the prospectus declare ‘Failure is not an option.’

As one dean at Georgia Gwinnett put it, teaching staff are selected on the basis of ‘passion for teaching, and liking students’. Faculty are actively involved in student support, and are expected to be available for students with tutorial needs outside class hours. Every course handbook has the mobile number of the teacher printed clearly on the front cover, and this college-provided phone is meant to elicit a fast response. In addition to providing academic support for students in class and across the campus, there is also a 24-hour online tutoring service for every major undergraduate programme offered on campus.

Despite a short history, Georgia Gwinnett has build a strong reputation quickly, and is already ranked in the top 10% of colleges nationwide for academic challenge, student/faculty interaction outside of the classroom, and for active and collaborative learning. It has also achieved remarkable results for student retention, performing at least ten percentage points higher than the average for state colleges in the United States for first year retention. For a non-selective institution, this pays tribute to the supportive and challenging learning environment offered to students. It also reflects the practice of having maximum class group sizes of 25, and a compulsory attendance requirement.

The power behind the rapid growth of Georgia Gwinnett’s numbers lies in word of mouth: where live-transforming examples of student success affect families, this also impacts on communities, and ultimately, Gwinnett County and beyond. The most frequently reported aspect of student feedback is consistently about one aspect: the quality of the teaching staff. The key message which is now well established in the community is ‘Faculty here will help you make it through’.

Leadership

There is a clear purpose for Georgia Gwinnett, that of inspiring students to contribute to society. This links to the value of service, and is intended to ensure that the college contributes to the long-term civic growth and sustainability of Gwinnett County and its hinterland. Importantly, the current ethnic mix in the County corresponds to the predicted balance for the United States as a whole by 2040 . This is roughly 35% African-American, 35% white and 25% Latino. Georgia Gwinnett sees itself as an overt prototype of higher education for the 21st century, and is attracting considerable interest from its peers. Not only was it the first new four-year college founded in Georgia in more than 100 years; it was also the first four-year public college created in the United States in the 21st century.

Leadership is a key factor in the organisation of the college. It was set up deliberately without academic departments or departmental chairs, in order to avoid silo mentalities. Deans therefore manage within a model of distributed leadership, in which clusters of colleagues work together across academic programmes and thematic areas of responsibility overseen by associate deans.

In the week when I visited Georgia Gwinnett with a group of leaders from across the UK, the college had just succeeded in securing accreditation for its degree programmes for a further ten-year period, with feedback from the accrediting body which was entirely positive. One aspect which was found to be an outstanding example of leadership practice concerned strategy: Georgia Gwinnett’s strategic plan is a dynamic reality, constantly being updated and enacted. The accrediting body had never before seen this happen before in a higher education institution!

My thanks to Tom Kennie and Robin Middlehurst for setting up such a comprehensive programme of visits, and for all their inspiring work on TMP over the last 14 years

Paul Gentle is the Leadership Foundation’s Director of Programmes and from autumn 2013 will lead Top Management Programme 32 onwards. To find out more about TMP visit: www.lfhe.ac.uk/TMP

One thought on “Georgia on my mind: A distinctive experience

  1. The trip to US and visiting all the different universities was the definitely one of the highlights of the TMP30 for me. I must get hold of this Dynamic strategic plan!

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