Dr. George A. Pruitt on CAEL, Student Success, and the Purpose of Postsecondary Education
"CAEL is often and accurately described as a movement," writes Dr. George A. Pruitt, president emeritus of Thomas Edison State University, in his new autobiography, From Protest to President. Dr. Pruitt's perspective is informed by his broad experience on the front lines of the civil rights movement and his intimate acquaintance with CAEL as a former executive vice president. In the book, published Dec. 9 via Rutgers University Press, Pruitt recounts his remarkable journey from civil rights activist to president of Thomas Edison State University, a role he held for more than 35 years. In addition to CAEL, Pruitt held executive leadership positions at Illinois State University, Towson State University, Morgan State University, and Tennessee State University prior to joining Thomas Edison State University. Describing himself in the book as "militantly independent and nonpartisan," Pruitt was also a longtime member of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, where he served five secretaries of education and three presidents of both parties. Pruitt will be joining CAEL Feb. 2 for a “fireside chat” webinar to reflect on his time at CAEL and how it intersected with his leadership within the civil rights and adult learning movements.
"I've been sort of a Forrest Gump of movements," said Pruitt, discussing his autobiography with CAEL. "The civil rights movement, the adult learning movement, the prior learning assessment movement, and the distance education movement -- my career and life spanned all of those." Pruitt wrote the book, he said, not only to provide a first-hand account of watershed moments in history but to preserve a record of "the extraordinary people who did a lot of extraordinary things, people like Morris Keeton, Pam Tate, and the entire intellectual community that came together to form CAEL."
Pruitt, born in Canton, Mississippi in 1946, grew up in the South Side of Chicago but spent summers and holidays in Mississippi, where his Uncle "Doc," his mentor and the town's only Black medical doctor, lived. In his book, he recalls the milieus of his youth as "two of the most segregated, oppressive and violent places in the United States." Three years before Pruitt was born, his aunt and her unborn child died after Doc rushed them to the Afro-American Sons and Daughters Hospital, in Yazoo City, Mississippi. During the 30-mile drive, his physician uncle had to drive his own sister, who was suffering from internal bleeding, past a much closer hospital that served White people only. When Pruitt was nine, his father, a mortician, took him to view the mutilated body of Emmett Till, the victim of a racially motivated murder. Ironically, Till also lived in Chicago and was only visiting Mississippi. He was the same age as Pruitt's older brother. As intended, the unfiltered experience his father exposed him to that day made it all too clear how easily it could have been one of them.
But it was back in Chicago, when Pruitt was enrolled in high school, where Pruitt began to actively participate in the civil rights movement. As a high school student, he joined protests over the school resources that followed "White flight" from Pruitt's neighborhood, revocations that left schools overcrowded and underserved. When he enrolled at the University of Illinois, he was among the mere one percent of Black students. Although Pruitt writes that the University was not "openly hostile" to its handful of Black students, "it wasn't hospitable either." One petty example: There was no place on campus where Black students could get their hair cut. Persistence would require "surviving in places that could make you feel alienated and irrelevant."
You Don't Get To Tell Me Who I Am
Pruitt writes of being impressed with Malcolm X's message of "self-reliance, self-determination and personal empowerment." In high school, he had met Malcolm in a Chicago barbershop, before his rise to national prominence. When Malcolm informed him that Pruitt was his slave name, he countered by insisting it was his father's name and that he didn't care who had used it before him. It's no wonder then that his book also emphasizes Malcolm's declaration: "You don't get to tell me who I am."
"When Malcolm said that, we were all struggling to figure out who we were, and the external cues about who we were were all negative," said Pruitt. "What Malcolm was basically saying is that we have an obligation to be the architects of our own lives and future, and that no external force, no external institution, and no external people have the right to decide what our future is going to be for any reason, but particularly based on identity." The qualities of individual empowerment and perseverance form a thread that runs throughout the autobiography. But Pruitt's writing complements this theme with numerous reminders that student success is a destination ideally reached via a two-way street, one where faculty and staff meet learners where they are.
But before they could be met, Pruitt and other Black students had to at least be seen. At the University of Illinois, Pruitt took part in the creation of the Black Student Union. And at Illinois State University, where Pruitt transferred after five semesters to avoid a gen ed requirement discordant with his major and his interests, he became the inaugural president of the Illinois State University Black Students Association. By the fall of 1968, the association had increased enrollment of Black students by more than 150 percent. To do so, it had to recruit students with the "fortitude, capacity and perseverance to succeed in a place that was at best, indifferent to their presence and at worst, overtly hostile."
CAEL as Crucible of Adult Learning Movement
Pruitt's involvement with CAEL arose out of efforts to increase engagement with HBCUs. After supporting these efforts as an external advisor, Pruitt joined CAEL in 1981 as executive vice president and chief operating officer. He had been impressed by how CAEL's founding focus had broadened the higher ed's view of the student landscape. "We quickly discovered that prior learning assessment really only made sense for adults. The experiential learning movement by necessity became the adult learning movement, and CAEL became sort of the crucible for the whole movement. And it attracted institutions that were interested in adults, it attracted scholars that were interested, it attracted practitioners that were interested."
In fact, the institution Pruitt would lead for more than three decades was a product of the adult learner movement. "Thomas Edison was one of them," said Pruitt. "Minnesota Metropolitan State, Charter Oak, and of course our older brother, University of Maryland University College [today University of Maryland Global Campus], all of those institutions were created out of this movement," along with Empire State College and the New York Regents External Degree program (today Excelsior University). A focus on adult learners set each of them apart.
Perhaps more importantly, they were distinguished by research-backed best practices that have become foundational within frameworks of adult learner effectiveness. "These institutions were built on the characteristics of the learner, not the aspirations of the faculty," said Pruitt. "Because in a way, they marginalized the faculty, they basically said, 'These are our clients. These are their characters. These are their attributes. How do we meet them where they are and create an environment where they can prosper and succeed?'"
Student Success Lies at the Intersection of Aptitude and Aspiration
(And You Probably Won't Find it With a Slide Rule)
In his book, Pruitt relates that since his time as an undergraduate, he wondered why some students succeeded where others failed. He concludes that "nonintellectual variables," including "personalities and self-concept strong enough to deal with the alienation, confront it, and overcome it" are difference makers. During his conversation with CAEL, Pruitt recalled how flunking out was a "measure of rigor" for some institutions, who would even boast of famous dropouts as a point of prestige. He writes that aptitude cannot be taught, but he also believes that "nature and nurture" share a role in determining student success. Given these circumstances, the key to success, Pruitt said, is to find the point where what you like to do and what you're good at intersect. "No one is successful who doesn't work hard," he said. "And the only way you're really going to be motivated to work hard is if you like what you do. But even if you like what you do, if you're no good at it, that's not going to work. And if you're good at it, but you hate it, that's not going to work either."
So how are students to pinpoint such intersections? Pruitt argues that they shouldn't expect the college experience to convey career clairvoyance. "I have always objected when political leaders and public figures assert that the reason for going to college is to get a job," he writes. But he also extols the earnings premiums associated with a college degree. While not to be confused with direct causation -- after all, there is rampant dissonance between college majors and subsequent occupations, "It is true that college-educated people have higher incomes than non-college-educated people," he said. "But the reason for that is that higher education is a capacity-building enterprise. And high-capacity people outperform lower-capacity people across the board." The materials that build that capacity are in large part "soft skills.” Pruitt writes that higher ed "teaches people how to learn, think critically, self-discipline, and self-motivation. It aligns behavior with consequences and accountability. It promotes team building, communication skills and problem solving. None of these constitute a ticket to a particular job."
Dr. Pruitt has first-hand experience of how the education-employment pathway can lead to undivined destinations. Inspired by his uncle to become a doctor, he majored in biology and minored in chemistry. But before graduating, he realized he was drawn more to his Uncle's stellar character than to his career. As he writes in his book, "At my core, I was an activist. I was engaged, involved and wanted to follow Uncle Doc's advice to leave things better than I found them." He felt that nurturing his love of science and precise thinking would be valuable regardless of where his career took him, especially when paired with an appetite for lifelong learning.
Sure enough, when he was offered a job with Illinois Bell, Pruitt asked an HR director why he was interested in a biology major. "I'll never forget what he told me," he said. "'We hire college graduates for our management because we think college graduates are teachable and know how to learn.'" Years later, Pruitt served on a panel with several governors and the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. The executive spoke of how his recruiters prioritized liberal arts-educated management candidates. "They needed engineers and technicians and wanted state-of-the-art training in those areas," said Pruitt. "But what they really needed was people who could think, understand the company, understand the environment, and come up with principles and a vision that allows the company to be sustainable and profitable. Also, jobs change."
To emphasize that point, Pruitt brandished a slide rule, recalling how a chemistry professor implored students not to skimp when buying the instrument because they'd be using it for the rest of their lives. "If your occupation and job are dependent upon the longevity of the slide rule, you have been out of work for a very long time," he said. "To be effective in the workplace, you have to be willing to learn and know how to learn. What you get out of college is the capacity, the investment in your own intellectual development, that allows you to learn to be flexible, to be adaptive, to be self disciplined, to have a work ethic, to know how to work with colleagues and other people, and to know how to assimilate new knowledge and build on what you already know by transferring your experiences to situations different from where you gained them. That's why adult higher education is important."
To Meet Learners Where They Are, You Have To Be Present
The notion that you can't meet learners where they are without being there yourself might seem axiomatic. But an amusing and ironic story included in Pruitt's book reminds us that not all gaps between theory and practice occur outside of the classroom. In his introductory psychology course, lectures were prerecorded and delivered via video monitors. One day, Pruitt heard the following advice about learning theory playing from the speakers strewn around the enormous classroom: "Learning is most effective when instruction is personalized and takes into account the individual background and circumstances of the student." Perhaps it was a good thing that the professor was not present to hear 300 students "erupt[ing] in spontaneous laughter at the absurdity of our situation.”
"What he said was right," said Dr. Pruitt. "The problem is, how do you institutionalize that?" Answering that question joined the impetus that spawned CAEL and accelerated the adult learner movement. "Eighteen- to twenty-two-year-olds, even though they are diverse, when you get a bunch of them in a room, they're a lot more alike than they are different just because of developmental variables. But you get a group of adults in a room they're all over the place. And to try to come up with a one- size-fits-all template is not doable." Educational strategies that embraced the varied experiences of adult learners would take center stage in the adult learning movement, from tackling adult literacy problems to valuing the rich, college-level experiential learning of high-performing workers.
The good news for institutions that want to be present for adult learners is that adult learners are a willingly captive audience. "They're self motivated, they're paying for their education, and they have a consumer's mentality," Pruitt said. In his book, he explains how a snow event became an adult-learning epiphany for him when he was teaching an evening class in Baltimore. When one of the classes was cancelled because of weather, Pruitt decided to drive to class even though a radio announcement had been made, figuring some students may have missed the notice. "On the way to my car, I could hear the 'traditional age' students cheering that classes were cancelled as they headed to the local bars," he writes. "When I arrived, I was surprised to see the entire class. Even the students who had heard about the cancellation were there, and they had questions. They were relieved when I arrived and wanted to know the consequences of cancelling the class. If the class was cancelled, how would it be made up? Would they receive a tuition refund? I was pleased by their attitude. What a contrast from the kids back on campus who were celebrating their cancelled classes. For my students, this course represented an investment of their time and expense, and they wanted their money's worth. It was eye-opening for me."
Agility and Keeping the Movement Moving
Dr. Pruitt believes research, best practices, training, and quality control are vital resources to practitioners and advocates of adult learning. This research is still relevant," he said, "and I'm watching schools go out to deal with adult students, and they're crashing and burning. You've got practitioners now who are divorced from all of this content. So you need to find ways to keep reconnecting them with the research and provide training in these areas, things for administrators, what works, what doesn't work."
Dr. Pruitt also stressed that any movement needs agility to avoid becoming a victim of its own success. After CAEL helped change the face of higher education via recognition of prior learning, "You saw yourself on the vanguard of a new movement, you were the revolutionaries," he said, adding that had it not embraced a shift toward workforce development under the leadership of then-President Pamela Tate (a role today bolstered by workforce veteran Earl Buford), CAEL would have "become the defenders of the orthodoxy. You have to be nimble and responsive and you have to help your members change and evolve. You can't have the same answer, because the question is going to change every year."
Do you have a question for Dr. Pruitt? Join us for our webinar Feb. 2