College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

"A Season of Rededication"
(A speech given by Dean Fred Antczak to the faculty and staff of the
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the CLAS fall meeting on August 26, 2006)

The music selection, Winter's Passed, so wonderfully performed by Professors Vavrickova and Vanden Wyngaard, is appropriate to this Fall Meeting in a very interesting way. As we reconvene for another year, it's easy to see how this is our spring. One of President Haas's very first statements to the campus community is a bellwether for today. He said that this "time of year is so special. It's a new beginning & there's such a positive sense of the future." This new beginning is always a season of rededication, but that's especially so this year. I want to get at that point in two ways this morning: by looking at our specific circumstances, here, this year, as a special warrant to seize the day; and by enumerating four tasks that we need to address together this year.

Each time I speak with you, I want to remind you of this truth about our profession: We are lucky to be doing what we are doing. It's a tremendous privilege to join with gifted colleagues in meaningful work. Our colleagues' achievements this year call to mind the Buddhist concept of "right work." We have so many productive models of seeing the work before us humbly, and being fully in the moment, pouring one's best energies into it. Whether it's our five much-deserved teaching awards; or scholarly publications like Roy Cole's Oxford University Press-published book, Joe Helgert's book, Roger Ellis's book, Ander Monson's award-nominated book, Corey Anton's national award-winning book; or whether it's grant work like the REU grants that Steve Schlicker and Ed Aboufadel have won repeatedly, a commitment of 9 years and counting, to bring in summer students from all over the country to join GVSU students and Mathematics faculty in exploring their areas of research areas of research, or Dean Joseph's $184,000 grant to help K-8 teachers in preparing to teach science, or whether it's in performances by our artists like the beautiful one you heard today, we know that CLAS faculty are excelling at every dimension of their work.

Moreover we are so lucky to be able to serve such talented students. In what line of work may one depend on meeting an inexhaustible supply of interesting people? We do more than meet them; we change lives for many students, including for some who could not have imagined it before they met us.

But our good fortune, that of everyone in this room, is rationed. If you are among our veterans of 38 or 40 years in the profession, if you are like me in the career stage that I euphemistically call "late late middle," or if this is your very first teaching job, we each are only given but so many new beginnings--and we do not know what that number will be. Seize the day--embrace this season. For no matter how many more seasons each of us may have, this is a season of rededication to the extraordinarily meaningful work that we get the opportunity to do.

And please don't fail to notice how this is an especially condign and fortunate moment, what Provost Davis has called "a landmark year," for us to have this opportunity. In many ways, it seems other campuses are in turmoil, from fired presidents to threats of faculty strike. Our campus, by contrast, has benefited from good faculty recruitment, extra dollars for needed salary adjustment, the appointment (with significant faculty input) of a skillful and energetic new president, and a central administration generally that is remarkably able, honest, collaborative, and dedicated. That's not to deny that they ask us to do difficult things. But it is to observe that in responding to their calls, we have found neither chaos nor confrontation, but an experience of a community moving forward together in our challenging work.

We must be realistic. This is an era of wrenching economic transition, and Michigan's troubles will not be magically solved in one or two or even five years. Yet we are proud of the public role in which we serve the state, and clearly, we give that service in a University that seems to have found its niche. GVSU's excellence in our teaching mission is recognized ever more broadly, although as you know, academic reputation is fragile, needing our constant rededication to maintain and advance it.

Now, I would not claim that all our constituencies understand, much less appreciate, our mission of liberal education. That is why I think it is important for you to take a moment sometime again this semester from each of your classes--whatever the level, whatever the discipline--to explain how it relates to a truly liberal education, an education for living and a lifetime of change. Many faculty provided us samples of how they conveyed this message last year; Dean Stark has sorted through them and has posted on the College website, under the "Teaching Liberal Education" tab, some excellent examples from our colleagues. I hope we can post yours next.

But it is clear that the mission of liberal education has been central to our recent success. We pause today at a something of a high water mark in the history of the University. While some institutions are visibly floundering, students are flocking to Grand Valley, better students every year. Let's give credit where credit is due. The trajectory of that increase has been shaped primarily by your skilled dedication to our mission, and by your willingness to set challengingly high standards for our students.

The state's middle term future is full of challenges--particularly, in my opinion, if the roughly $2 billion of revenues from the Single Business Tax, repealed by the Legislature this summer, are not replaced. What it feels like to be at a great university is to face strenuous and meaningful challenges--with the confidence that we will succeed. If we sustain our dedication, we can look forward to a future that looks as good or even better than our present, with new state investments like the increase we received this year (we're still lowest per capita among the public universities in the state allotments, but the good news is, we're now almost to the legal minimum!); investments like the bright new classroom and office building to be built off of Mackinac Hall, now in the planning stages and to be opened in a couple of years--and, on the horizon, a magnificent, nationally significant new library. Whatever our state's economic future, at least we can depend on this: whereas in the past, the state rode the automobile to economic prosperity, it's now increasingly recognized that we in higher education are the Vehicle of the Future (in some ways, I wonder if there's ever really been a better time and place to do what we do than here, and now). For myself, anyway, I count it the most important opportunity, and the greatest privilege of my professional life to work with you.

There's another, more focused set of reasons for rededication: we not only have essential work to do, but we are in one of the rare lines of work where we can influence how it gets done. As you've heard this morning, faculty governance is alive and well in CLAS, and it is taking on serious issues with enthusiasm and responsibility. We have four important tasks to take on this year, and in each, faculty participation will shape the outcomes. Those four all have to do with our strategic goals: workload planning, diversity, assessment, and academic challenge.

First, our discussions of work assignments and rewards will continue in departments this year. While it might be a temptation to avoid the labor required of the discussion altogether and rely on the fairness of others, the fact is that the issue is open for our conversation now. We do many different kinds of work, and the variety of assignments are better measured and balanced at the department level. The first challenge that CLAS faces this year is to construct an active loop of information and feedback so that rewards may follow work accomplished, and that work assignments may be assigned equitably, both according to the needs of students, the department, the College and the University, and responding more satisfyingly and engagingly to the different sets of strengths and interests of different faculty. We know that we have serious equity problems in the College, and the Provost has told us that realistically, we can't count on a sudden torrent of new resources to solve them all at once. We have already made some progress. But the degree and speed of further progress will depend on faculty participation in the workload discussion this fall. It's time, it's important work to do, and it's up to us to assure that it's done in a way that fits our future.

Our second task is to advance the continuing work related to the University and College goals of diversity. This is doubtless an ideal that nearly everyone approves in a general way. But remember the challenges of last spring, of the unacceptable kinds of communication this campus saw. There is work--central to our educational mission--that remains for us to do. The College is formulating plans to work with and through unit heads on this issue, but the kernel of our approach is simple: we must, to invoke Gandhi, "be the change we wish to see in the world." We faculty must, in clear, consistent and specific ways, model the values we profess. Let me say from my own conversations with students last year that we need to do a still better job of this, even in the humblest of respect--in the jokes we choose to tell, the stories and illustrations we use in and out of class, the ways we comport ourselves with students--in order to include them all equally in the adventure of learning, and challenge them all to succeed, each to the best of their abilities

Our third task: you all know that University accreditation is coming up, and we all recognize how much of our present and future prosperity depends on a positive outcome. That process has two parts for us. We must make progress on assessment; and we must complete (to the extent any living document is ever complete) Department and College strategic planning. Toward those ends, next month one or two associate deans and I will be visiting every department to discuss with you the current drafts of your strategic plans, and to examine their implications for future issues like assessment.

One thing we'll be looking for in your plans follows President Haas's encouragement for us to become, and be recognized as, "a great university at the national level." Even the Lanthorn, in its "Welcome Back" issue, encourages students and faculty to "help Grand Valley State University make its national mark." We do not serve our students well by keeping our academic light under a bushel; our light itself burns dimmer in such guarded insularity. There are already shining exceptions, but we are too often described as a "best kept secret." In many cases it's just a matter of claiming credit that's overdue. But in part it's because we simply have not sought enough opportunities to play on the larger, more public stages of our disciplines. We are young; our habits of joining national conversations are not fully formed. But let me assure you, let me encourage you, we can stand up to (while learning from) national comparisons. We need to do this now if we are to become, and be recognized as, what our colleague in History, Craig Benjamin, has called us. Yesterday at the Teaching Conference, Craig called us "truly a leading 21st century university." Craig, I commend you for that statement. Certainly this is not the moment to set our goals any lower. So when the deans come to visit, we're going to be looking at your strategic plans and talking with you to elicit ideas about how your department can do more on this strategic priority.

While no one can deny the importance of accreditation to the University or the importance of assessment to teaching, one sees that planning and assessment can be taken seriously--or, not. Strategic plans can be done by the whole department, thoughtfully incorporating all faculty aspirations and perspectives--or they can be whipped up "on the fly"by the department chair, in the belief that no one will, or should, care. Since this is a document that the College, the University, and the accrediting agency will read closely (not to mention it they will be one of the first and most influential ways your unit introduces itself to the new president), your department should take it seriously. And you should do so for another reason: that faculty should take full advantage of opportunities to shape their destiny. Strategic plans bear some resemblance to J.L. Austin's "speech acts." It's not quite "let there be light." It's not even quite like the circumstances we create by saying "I do." But strategic plans are actions, in that they not only express our vision of the future, but by their articulation help make it happen--whether those plans concern fostering what we love most in the life of the mind, or making room to change things when we think we can do better.

The fourth task relates to the third. We have for several years been admitting more and more highly qualified students. We learned from the NSSE data of a couple years ago that many of our students--maybe not the squeaky wheels, but a significant number--find some of their classes less challenging than they would have hoped.

 

Indeed in this year's new faculty orientation, I heard members of a student panel say "an unchallenging class is a boring class; in the long view of things, we students don't want that," and "respecting your students includes challenging, and holding them accountable."

Now, THIS YEAR, is a time to raise the bar in academic excellence and engagement, if only because with such good students, what you ask for is what they will achieve.

There are many ways we can make progress on this, including a multifaceted curriculum review by our dynamic College Curriculum Committee this year. But rather than my talking about how, I have invited a special person to tell you why. Elicia Fundaro is a Communications major, a junior in her studies at Grand Valley, and a student member of the Claiming a Liberal Education initiative. Please welcome our student, Ms. Elicia Fundaro [Ms Fundaro revised and extended her remarks for this posting on the web].

To All You Hard-Working and Dedicated Educators:

Thank you so much for all that you do! Personally each Fall I'm excited to be starting another year here at Grand Valley State University (GVSU). Having the opportunity to grow more and more as a critical thinker, that can make applications across the vast spectrum of liberal arts and sciences to everyday thought, is something I avidly aspire to.

One of the most influential factors on deciding to attend GVSU was that it offered the type of learning environment I really wanted: one that emphasized the importance of student and professor interaction. I simply cannot imagine a better way to learn! Too often the voice of students who take this opportunity for granted speaks the loudest as an attitude whose complaints can overpower any classroom's tone.

However, there are still many other students who feel silenced by this. These students would tell you we are passionate about our education! We really want to be here. We have insatiable curiosities and are dedicated to take in all that you have to teach us.

Above all the things that we would like you to know is that we really look forward to be engaged and active students in and outside of the classroom. Your enthusiasm is contagious please share it with us! Don't be afraid to ask more of us; we'll step up to the scholastic challenge and do the best we can. We really respect your encouragement and belief in us- we always recognize it most when it's sincere. This is what really makes us strive to reach our potential. Thank you for the inspiration- we're listening! See you in class.

--Elicia Fundaro

Thank you Elicia. We're all proud of you. And, colleagues, it's up to you to assure that students like Elicia, and their aspirations of learning, are not silenced in your class, that they learn to speak out a little for themselves as Elicia has, and that they receive the education for which they depend on you.

We have great students, and our central mission is one of great dignity: to teach them well--and to raise the level of academic challenge and engagement as the standards of our disciplines move forward. This is a perfect moment, and a watershed year, for rededication to that task.

So let us set about the work before us humbly, for it is right work for us. Here and now; let us pour our best energies into it. Let us be fully in this good moment. We don't know how many autumns each of us will have to begin this work again. But we know we are lucky to share this one.

Now let's go share food and conversation together, the whole College under one tent, remembering how lucky we are to have this distinctly happy opportunity, and let's rededicate ourselves to making the most of it together.

Thank you.


 

Page last modified August 1, 2012