A Year of Hope and Dreams

Frederick J. Antczak  

August 21, 2014

 

Good morning.

I have a picture in my office that one of our now-retired Sociologists, Bill Witt, gave me—a picture Bill took himself—of Dr. Martin Luther King jr, at work planning a campaign.  Contemplating it, I couldn’t help but think how history would have been different if, instead of saying “I Have a Dream,” Dr. King had proclaimed “I have a strategic plan.”

As professors, it’s our nature, in our professional DNA, to help our students reach for and realize dreams.  We don’t welcome distractions from our deep commitment to our students and our discipline—and I will tell you that there’s nothing more important that you can contribute this year than to teach your classes brilliantly, and to inspire your students to learn the particular subject matter on which you are Grand Valley’s expert.  Take your students as far as you can go toward that dream.

But I can’t help remembering what Barack Obama said to John McCain during the 2008 election: presidents have to be able to do more than one thing at a time.  I’m not comparing our lot as professors with that of presidents, except in the respect that we can do more than one thing at a time.  We can handle it when significant secondary demands arise—historically it’s a talent of CLAS faculty to be able to turn what might at first feel like disruption—say, the emergence of Big Data—into something that supports our primary commitments. I’ll talk in a moment about how CLAS integrated sustainability and assessment and community engagement into its mission, but this year, when for example we contemplate the report of the Internationalization Task Force, I’m confident that we will lead the University in implementing ways that internationalization advances not just the teaching of art or anthropology, but statistics and chemistry and movement science. 

If we are to continue to propel our students toward their hopes and dreams, if indeed we’re committed to getting even better at it—as I think everyone in this room wants to do—we need to understand the climate in which we work, and not be uninformed deniers of a vast climate change that’s already taking place.  One does not have to be a seer, a strategist or even an unpaid consultant to see the evidence that there is a major crisis coming to higher ed in the next 10 years—driven by costs, by increasing student debt, and in some places by lack of employment, underemployment, and lack of advancement—as well as by, in public higher education, some new political agendas.  It’s inevitable; something will tip over very disruptively.  Academics are famously liberal about politics but conservative about their own practices and concepts, but surveying the way some institutions treat students and learning and even professors, it’s not hard to see how some of this disruption could open a space for something better.

It is our opportunity—for GVSU, especially for CLAS—to be in front of the story about why liberal education is more central than ever, and can be the firmest base for individuals to flourish in an ever more complex world which includes—but should never be mistaken for, conflated with, or judged reflexively in the temporary and fleeting terms of—an ever more competitive economy. 

Michael Crimmins, the Mary Ann Smith Professor of Chemistry at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, observed about climate change that  “[w]hen you talk with people, one of the arguments they'll throw back at you is that the climate has always changed, and that is absolutely right. It's the rate of change that is the problem right now. It's changing so quickly that it exceeds the adaptive capacity of some species.”  Climate change is a productive metaphor when thinking about disruption in education.

Some of the change in our climate is caused by wider economic forces that we don’t and can’t directly influence.  For instance, the economics of running universities are changing.  A Fidelity Investment report indicates that up to 40% of faculty are “planning to delay retirement for 5 years or more.” [1]  Meanwhile our slow recovery from recession means that university giving, which means university endowments, will grow at a slower rate than they once did.  Even those market-mad folks known as The Modern Language Association can be overheard telling PhD programs to talk to graduate students about options beyond the professoriate—still another reason to regard it as a privilege to do what WE who have faculty jobs are entrusted to do.  If we are doing that job and fulfilling our responsibilities, this disruption will, must, lead to changes and innovation.

Recently I was reading an essay by Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School on the two kinds of disruptive innovation.[i][2]  He talks about it, not surprisingly, in business terms, but we know how to translate his examples into ones more relevant to us.  Christensen says that the first kind of disruptive innovation brings new customers into the market—for instance, a budget airline that targets people who otherwise would not fly.

And think about it: we have been doing that.  GVSU welcomes first generation students as more than 40% of our student body, and we pride ourselves on having tuition in the lower half of Michigan universities—so we are looked at enviously by our “competition” as already successfully practicing this type of disruptive innovation.  And the characteristic of such “New Market Disruptors” is that once they get their foot in the door, they grow rapidly, and improve quality.  Sound like any students you know?

But Christensen describes another kind of disruptive innovation that he calls “Low-End Disruption.”  This kind addresses over-served customers with a lower-cost business model.  Now students aren’t primarily customers or consumers—I fight that metaphor, too.  Instead let’s just say that they have many choices aggressively pushed upon them these days.  We see this in their behavior.  Many schools accept a common application (though GVSU does not) and so students can easily (if not cheaply) apply to many colleges, and even increasingly choose to attend many freshman orientations.  Anecdotally, we hear about some of the students with the strongest grades and scores being invited to so many different universities’ interviews for scholarships (like our Awards of Distinction) that they just draw the line somewhere.  One wonders what goes into the decision making of these promising incoming freshmen-- and what we ought to be telling them, and when. 

In recruiting the dwindling pool of those graduating from high school, it’s not hard to discern what some universities think is most appealing about themselves.  We read about universities that boast the tallest climbing wall or about housing with amenities that compete with swanky hotels—“Comfy at All Cost,” in the phrase The Chronicle used.[3]  High school sophomores are barraged with mailings boasting the number of student activities, the placing on the latest Princeton Review survey, the percentage of graduates employed upon graduation, and the uniqueness of the undergraduate research opportunities offered by that university.  One 16-year-old I know says that the fliers are so similar that he’s ceased to look at them. 

The public debate has begun to take notice of all this, and its contribution to rising costs.  But in the public debate, it is often forgotten that overall prices rise in correlation to the overall disinvestment of states in their universities.  The folks who write those disheartening comments under articles on the Internet forget that when they went to school, nobody expected wireless access across campus, electrical outlets everywhere, fitness centers, much less a climbing wall (which we have!).  Those are just the most obvious differences.  Harder to spot are changes in the rising cost of compliance.  We are safer and fairer and better insured, more accountable and more transparent than ever before, God knows we are more exhaustively accredited—and all that comes at a price. The price is driven higher when this reporting is demanded in onerous forms.

For reasons legal, educational, and moral, we know we aren’t going back to the bad old days—lower priced though they were.  But in the popular metaphors, we do have to be careful that we aren’t hanging on to iceboxes or buggy whips of an educational sort.  We know this from our own disciplines.  We in the humanities now feel sheepish for the voices left out of our disciplines for so long; we’ve spent the better part of thirty years trying to recover them, and are now even critiquing what sort of assumptions guided that recovery.[4]  The sciences know it too—one does not have to be an Einstein to join him in the belief that “the measure of intelligence is the ability to change.” 

I suspect that we could actually help one another adjust to changes which we cannot prevent, and in some cases shouldn’t want even to forestall.  We could make this year of strategic planning a year that advances our students and ourselves towards our hopes and dreams.

The University’s Strategic Positioning document, through the stewardship of a diverse committee which includes staff, faculty and students as well as administrators and with oversight from our Trustees, streamlines our aims from our current eight to five.  As Tom Haas described these new goals, they are cast with particular emphasis on enriching opportunities for our students’ success.  We will concentrate on:

  • excellent academic programs and co-curricular opportunities
  • a respectful environment that is diverse and inclusive
  • the development of mutually beneficial relationships, partnerships, collaborations, and connections with local, state, national, and world communities
  • an environment that supports innovative and integrative scholarly and creative activity and the use of technologies
  • a structure aligned to our financial and human resources. 

Offering excellent academic programs that can thrive in changing conditions is something our faculty is fully able to do. We've proven that we can be flexible, selective, opportunistic on behalf of our students.   

 

For example: every institution talks the talk of inclusion these days.  More important is whether all students, every faculty and staff member, actually gets treated as if they deserve the opportunity to fully explore and realize their potential.  To be sure, preaching this gospel is important in itself, especially at a public university.  But words must drive action.  You as an individual can, this year, make it a point to stretch in this area, whether that’s through inclusion training or a PIC program or attending International Faculty and Friends events.  Departments can have a closer look at their own data: do your faculty and your major reflect a diverse community? If not, why not, and what can you do about it?  If so, the lessons can be shared—in the spirit of achieving more of our shared dreams.

But not all that is strategic is disruptive.  We must continue to support our distinctive strengths.  For instance, Grand Valley has been either first or second nationally among similarly sized institutions for Fulbright awards the past two years. CLAS has driven that number; at least four of our students are 2014-15 winners.  This is literally a world-class opportunity for our students, and a recognition of the education you are making available to them.

Inclusion, sustainability, and service learning are newer additions to the long tradition of liberal education.  But in our work together, we’ve not let any become a token bolt-on.  In the realm of community engagement and student research, for example, our College exceeded 773,000 student hours, with over 19,000 faculty hours of supervision.  As we go forward, we need to make sure that behind the staggering numbers is sustained effort to make them count pedagogically.  This year, our college’s annual report seeks to honor your service by describing the breadth and impact of it. 

We are rebuilding the intellectual infrastructure of a state whose reluctance to change left us with fewer college graduates in the workforce: over the last decade, 21% of the state’s increase in bachelor’s degrees came from Grand Valley alone—and about 60% of that figure came directly from CLAS. At least 92% of our graduates in each of the last three years are either employed or in graduate or professional school—a figure more impressive when put in the context of the Michigan economy.  GVSU has been doing a lot of heavy lifting—and  you are making a very significant difference on a large scale.

Where we are on the cutting edge, we ought not surrender that advantage to wander off with the herd in the direction of any current administrative trend.  Instead I'd suggest that the territory that is essentially unworked nationally is a traditional version of liberal arts and sciences, one that has direct, constructive and measurable economic and social consequences.  That absolutely includes STEM disciplines, but goes much further—not everyone has read sociologist Richard Florida[5], but lots of cities want serious members of the “creative class.”  As the data from AAC&U show, arts and sciences grads do close the earnings gap with the professional students whom they trail at entry level, more slightly than is often thought; and by their middle 50s are earning on average considerably more.  Moreover, liberal arts grads are among the drivers of our country’s intellectual capital, in that far more of them attain advanced degrees.  We who offer liberal education should stop apologizing. 

 

The success of public liberal arts colleges like GVSU will be increasingly important over the next decade.  I mean important both for how higher education sees itself, and for how we are seen by our publics: not as a dispensary of private benefit for individuals who purchase the services attached to the certifications represented by a degree; but rather as a public good—liberal education is a public good of increasing relevance in a time when change is so comprehensive and rapid, when problems are so compounded and wicked.  Yes, a liberal education is a thoroughly effective way to get an entry level job—but as we know, it is so much more than that.  Study in the liberal arts and sciences equips its students with the skills and the self-reflective capacities to identify emerging threats and opportunities, to analyze conditions in flux, and to draw from the whole history of human knowledge so as to adapt to those future challenges, many of which we cannot specifically anticipate, or even imagine. That claim, of course, applies across a lifetime of employment, with all the fundamental shifts that entails.  But the soul-making value in a liberal education is that its benefits also prove true personally, socially, publicly.  So if there’s only one thing you’d  say in advocacy of liberal education, I hope it’s that the education we offer our students is an education for living, and a lifetime of change—an education to inform, and achieve, hopes and dreams.

 

It’s not just a duty nor even a privilege to advocate for this truth; in our day, it’s urgent for all of us to work on implementing it. Martin Luther King did not just write soaring speeches; he strategized in minute and practical detail campaigns adapted to the particular circumstances which he sought to change.  While nothing is more urgent than that we teach our students the best we can, it is strategic, it is essential that we work to disrupt the educationally impoverished terms in which society currently understands the possibilities of a richly human life.  And it is urgent that we enrich our students’, and our University’s, capacities to meet the unpredictable onslaughts of change: to meet them with the ability to dream, collaborative habits of citizenship and leadership, and reasons for hope that never go out of date—but that do progress, move forwarding at the pace of knowledge itself.  So let us, this year, on behalf of our students, plan     to extend our dreams.

 

[1] www.Chronicle.com/RetirementWave2014

[2] Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business School, DISRUPTIVE INNOVATION and CATALYTIC CHANGE in Higher

Education, https://rossier.usc.edu/files/2013/12/Disruptive-Innovation-Catalytic-Change-C.-Christensen.pdf

[3] The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 1, 2014, p.1.

[4] A good example being the most recent issue of the Rhetoric Society Quarterly (2014, vol. 44, no. 2).

[5] The Rise of the Creative Class, 2002. 

 

 



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