Faculty Spotlight: Gavin Henning
A path far from straight but serendipitous is how Henning describes his career.
Today, he is a nationally recognized higher education assessment specialist, but he never saw that coming. Henning attended Michigan State University and double majored in psychology and sociology, intending to go into a PhD program to become a clinical psychologist. He applied to seven PhD programs, but as a first-generation college student, he did not realize that these highly competitive programs accepted only five or six students each year. He received rejection letters from all seven programs. “At that point, I thought, ‘What do I do now?’”
After working in student affairs during college and loving the work, he decided to also earn his MA in College and University Administration from Michigan State.
He then headed east to work in Residential Life at the University of New Hampshire. He threw himself into a research-based part of his job: facilitating and analyzing the annual Residential Life survey, a process that would change the course of his career. “That was my first foray into assessment. But we didn’t call it assessment back then,” Henning explains, “because assessment, as we now think about it, had not reached higher education yet.”
It was not long before Henning realized that assessment was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. A few career twists and turns later, Henning was teaching in the MEd program at NEC and stepping into the Director of Doctorate of Education Programs position, while continuing to do assessment work.
Assessment within higher education can be defined simply as program evaluation. Henning guides assessment work at NEC by focusing on three areas: academic programs, leadership programs, and student learning. He explains that all of NEC’s academic programs go through a review process; leadership programs, like Residential Life, are evaluated for how well they accomplish their missions; and student learning is evaluated for whether students are learning in the classroom and achieving program outcomes.
This third aspect of assessment, the opportunity to benefit students, is what drives Henning’s work, and his current scholarship focuses on equity-centered assessment. “How do we make sure our programs and services are helping all students, not just the majority? How can we address the disparate outcomes for non-white students on our campuses?” he asks.
This inherent belief that higher education should be made better for all students has led Henning to work with dozens of colleges, universities, and education organizations across the United States and in four other countries. Over the course of more than 25 years in higher education, Henning has created a prolific body of work related to assessment and higher education. His 34-page curriculum vitae attests to the many contributions he has made—from teaching, presentations, and interviews to committee involvement, publications, and the founding of the annual New England Assessment Conference hosted by NEC.
A few years ago, Henning suggested an assessment conference and was told to go for it. “I love NEC because it’s entrepreneurial. There’s a culture here of being willing to take risks. And if it doesn’t work out, that’s okay; failure is how we get better.”
When asked if he could have foreseen that he would be a nationally recognized expert, Henning modestly says, “No, no, no. Honestly, my whole career has been serendipity. Things happened at the right time; the right people came along at the right time.”
He began working in assessment in 2000, about 15 years before it became popular in higher education. At UNH, he was one of the first in the country to have a full-time position in higher education assessment, which meant there were no resources. Henning and his colleagues created a lot of resources themselves by applying research methods from their graduate programs to assessment. And because he was one of the first assessment professionals, other schools started inviting him to speak and give presentations. “Had I started my career 10 years later, the foundations of assessment would have already been in place, and none of this would have happened in my career.”
Serendipity certainly had a plan for a college graduate who did not know what was next but who was willing to explore opportunities as they came.
This article was published in the Fall 2021 issue of the New England College Magazine.