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A Tribute to Arthur W. Chickering (1927-2020)

On August 15, the adult learning community lost an icon. Arthur Chickering – known to his friends and colleagues as Chick – was instrumental in many of the activities that led to the formation of CAEL in 1974. Catherine Marienau shared this reflection on Chick for the CAEL community.

Some of us are fortunate enough to experience pivotal moments in our careers that profoundly influence our future path. For me, that “moment” was forty years ago (1980-81) when I joined Art Chickering (Chick) and his team to work with the HiLDA (Higher Learning for Diverse Adults) project, in the Center for Higher Education, at Memphis State. His vision for this FIPSE-funded project was to ‘turn colleges toward adults’ by educating and supporting local change teams in 13 institutions around the country, focusing on adult learning principles and practices and on planned change. These were the areas I had become keenly interested in during my ten years directing the University Without Walls (UWW) program at the University of Minnesota and in my graduate studies. Supported by a one-year Bush Leadership Fellowship, I joined the HiLDA project, as Professional-in-Residence, to conduct my dissertation research and to learn as much as possible about adult learning and development and strategies for planned change.

Chick welcomed me as a colleague and put me to work. Through his on-the-side mentoring, I experienced many firsts—learning how to: teach graduate students in a group setting; write journal articles suitable for publication; conduct professional development workshops for faculty and administrators (not always a friendly audience); consult with local change teams about experiential learning and prior learning assessment; and co-conduct a formative evaluation of the change teams’ initiatives. He also helped me conceptualize a proposal for the first qualitative research dissertation in my home College of Education at the University of Minnesota. Chick taught me many things, not just by telling me, but by having me do something. It was a magnificent year of intense experiential learning with a tough yet compassionate coach.

As my year was ending with the HiLDA project, Chick arranged for me to meet David Justice, the Center’s first professional-in-residence, who had returned to his role as senior project officer with FIPSE. Chick anticipated, rightly so, that David and I would bond over our passionate interests in innovative programs for adult learners. After David became Dean of the School for New Learning (SNL) at DePaul University, in 1983 he invited me to join as associate dean with enticement to lead the creation of SNL’s first graduate program (currently, the Master of Arts in Applied Professional Studies). Due largely to the knowledge and skills I honed during my year with Chick and colleagues, I felt ready for the challenge. My tenure as full-time faculty/academic administrator with SNL lasted 36 years, until my ‘retirement’ in July 2019.

Over the past 40 years, Chick has been a significant presence in my life, as mentor, colleague, and friend. I continued to learn from him, and with him, as we collaborated on articles, presentations, program evaluations, and ambitious projects. Around 2015, Chick approached me with another vision: working together to create a consortium of adult-focused programs and institutions to advance the cause of higher education for social justice—building curricula, supporting faculty development, and exchanging best practices. When support from foundations and national associations was not forthcoming, we went local—to the School for New Learning at DePaul University whose mission and practices were so well aligned with the social justice agenda. Chick helped garner support from SNL and DePaul leaders and contributed his personal funds. That project became what is now the Community Engagement Network (CEN)–Collaborative Learning for Action, a forum for students, alums, faculty and community leaders to exchange ideas and strategies for social justice.

Chick’s advocacy for SNL’s innovative graduate program and CEN has had a lasting impact on adult learning at DePaul University. Others will give tribute to his pioneering leadership of Empire State College and the Adult Degree Program at Goddard College. All of us working in adult-focused programs have been fortified by his research and writing that helped shape the movement in experiential learning, prior learning assessment, and individualized curricula.

In The Modern American College (1981), Chick wrote about the need to maintain a “steady fire that is critical as well as creative” and to exercise “cool passion [that] seeks fulfillment by joining forces of heart and mind, commitment and critical analysis” (p. 783). He continued to generate ideas and strategies for the role that higher education could—must—play in developing the kind of intelligence needed to rebuild and feed the soul of democracy. Our last conversation, just a few weeks before his passing, was about advocating leadership for social action. Chick’s intellect and vision, wit and compassion—and capacity for play—has touched so many of us. Let us continue to meet his challenge to maintain that steady fire and cool passion in our work.

Catherine Marienau, Professor Emerita, DePaul University. October 2020.

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