“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”
Cicero, Pro Plancio
Today marks many milestones. It’s not only a day when we punctuate our 10th anniversary year as the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. It’s also nearly the end of my 35th year in our vocation, and my 10th year working as your dean. I remind you as often as I can of how lucky we are to be in this profession, especially working in a place like Grand Valley. Today I also want to tell you a few of the reasons that make me, in glancing back, personally grateful.
This is a trip down memory lane with a difference. Through the lens of gratitude we can look back and become mindful of what got us here, and what can keep moving us forward.
The sine qua non for me or any dean is always the people who make the College’s work possible. And since he is soon to transition to Associate Dean Emeritus, it is fitting that I lead off with Professor Gary Stark who has served this College from the time it was a gleam in the Provost’s eye. In addition to being an exemplary scholar who was awarded the university’s distinguished contribution to the discipline award for his contributions to history, Gary also has the deeply humane knack for making the driest and most ironic one-liners at just the point in a situation at which you would swear that the possibility of good humor had been lost. It is his special brand of problem solving, his humor and deep kindness for which I’m very grateful—and that’s not even mentioning his encyclopedic knowledge of the Faculty Handbook. Just this year, it was nobody other than Gary who clarified our elections by figuring out a way to list the open seats according to the length of term (e.g. 2 seats for three years each, 1 seat for one year, etc) instead of just the total number of open seats on a given committee. I imagine I also speak for Gretchen Galbraith when I say we are also grateful that Gary will be nearby next year. Colleagues, I say ye: Gary Stark!
My thanks to Gretchen for being willing to succeed Gary. Thank you to all of you who came out to hear the very fine group of finalists. I hope you were as deeply proud of them all, as I was. The search committee had an embarrassment of riches before them. Our bench is impressively, comfortingly deep.
It is our great good fortune, born of the hard work of previous search committees, that we also have people working for us every day in our other two Associate Dean portfolios. Associate Dean Shaily Menon is just the voracious learner we need to help us continue to develop in our roles and to bring new material resources to our research and our students. It’s because of Shaily’s efforts that we had a very successful new event this year called the Staff Roundtables which has already allowed us to use the clout of the College on behalf of its constituent units. Associate Dean Mary Schutten has brought to her work as our College’s curriculum guru and as ‘the place where the buck stops for students’ a kind of courage and care that has made her extremely effective with causes that some had written off. Mary gets traction where it seems there is none to be had.
Assistant Dean Pat Haynes has managed that most amazing of feats—she’s the budget person everybody likes. Pat helps us get our heads around the financial responsibilities that are thrust upon unit heads and grant PIs and office coordinators. With one eye on solvency and the other firmly on equity, Pat is herself a great asset to the College.
I am grateful that a wide-eyed student in the first seminar I taught at Berkeley got her PhD, had careers in and beyond academics, and after a couple decades of roaming the world, finally decided to come serve us here. Thank you, Monica.
I’m grateful to the rest of our office staff for support that always is focused on the long term health of the College. Many of you who have worked closely with them have told me how you depend on them for data, points of contact, institutional memory—and let’s not forget meeting snacks.
Those are some of the talented and dedicated folks just outside my office door. Only if they perform this well can CLAS have a full chance to thrive. To all of you who work directly with me, thank you for your support, your patience and your forgiveness. And thanks again to Provost Davis, for choosing to give me this opportunity.
In the early days of the College when we had 402 tenure line faculty, there were some who questioned the idea of bringing together so many disciplines under a single roof. I hope that in hindsight, you’ll join me in being grateful for the chance to make our grand scope an advantage. We are now about 500 tenure line faculty who, every day, find fascinating and productive ways to work across what in some universities are boundaries. In the most recent report on our hiring this season for tenure track faculty we have 16 confirmed, 2 offers pending, and 3 still in the interview process. For affiliates we have 1 confirmed, 1 offer pending, and 6 in progress. That is the fruit of work by many people, not to mention that working at Grand Valley is a life-changing opportunity for those we hire.
In the ten years of our College, I have watched our faculty find opportunity in our diversity. There are too many examples to name all, but here are a few names you haven’t heard lately. I’m grateful to Norwood Viviano and Melissa Morison for the classical bronze casting project. I’m grateful to Jim Smithers and Frank Boring for documentaries growing out of the Veteran’s History Project. I’m grateful to Karen Libman for directing and writing notes for Diane Rayor’s vibrant translations. Thanks to our geologists such as Peter Wampler for working with campus planners. Thanks to statisticians like John Gabrosek for helping communities get a handle on their data, and to Biology and AWRI for helping communities to see the potential for careful stewardship of their natural places. I am grateful to Jennifer Stewart for giving our students such a vital way to act on racism, and to faculty from at least four CLAS departments contributing to the Teach In. Thanks to Danielle Leek for establishing the speech lab. Thanks to our faculty governance committees over the years who amassed information about sabbaticals, deliberated long and hard out of the respect for their fellow faculty members’ careers, produced instructive events and guiding documents, and gave voice and efficacy to the faculty’s ideas. We are smarter, healthier, more just, more connected, more sustainable for your efforts. And thanks to the affiliates who are equipping us to begin benefitting from their advice.
But it’s true of all of us. Every one of you has contributed to advancing something larger than yourself, your department or your students or your discipline.
Over the last ten years I am grateful we survived challenges, natural and manmade: floods, sub-zero temperatures, accreditation, the steep learning curve of strategic planning and new databases, changes in economic outlook, potential epidemics, disruptive pedagogies, and parking squeezes. This semester we had multiple snow days complicating the work of those teaching on Mondays and Tuesdays. I am very grateful that we haven’t seen, as some universities did, draconian laws requiring posting of the cost-to-revenue ratios of individual faculty as in Texas public institutions, the closure of departments (even Emory University closed three departments), deep cuts to faculty development resources or other retrograde steps in the face of political and economic adversity. The chief officer of the university charged with this difficult and doleful task is our colleague in Chemistry, Tom Haas, and I am grateful for his willingness to bear this burden.
I’m grateful to have CLAS faculty who appreciate the need to keep their departments’ curricula relevant and vibrant, to promote their offerings to students, to help their students to be great ambassadors for their disciplines, to cultivate a strong affiliation with our alumni, and to let their own lights shine brightly in the wider academic community, so we can continue to attract—for this work is never done—ever higher caliber faculty, staff and students to GVSU.
I have always wanted Grand Valley to be the kind of place where every person could just soar as high as their interests and abilities allow. No obstacles, no impediments. So I am grateful that 40 CLAS faculty have joined me as members of Allies & Advocates, and 53 of us are Inclusion Advocates. Now we are building our Vet Net Allies, and I’m proud to be a member. We instituted the CLAS Academic Advising Center and now don’t know how we would live without them. And through your generosity, we have added many scholarships and program funds, helping to give opportunity to students for a better future.
I wanted CLAS to be on the cutting edge of the disciplines, of interdisciplinarity, and of nimbleness. We saw CMB and AWRI become academic departments in their own right. We calved the ITC. We enabled the emergence of CSAT. We created research clusters whose reach is intercollegiate. And I am grateful that we could better support individual faculty: I mean all our new faculty development seminars, and our being able to increase faculty development funds from a low in some places of $350 to the present $900 annually. I’m grateful, and I may not be the only one, that we have been able to bring down the average teaching load, in some units by an average 3 hours, even while increasing the tenure-line coverage of courses.
I am grateful that we built on great traditions that we inherited from the old divisions such as the Research Colloquium and Alumni in Residence, and that we established some brand new traditions such as the Teaching Roundtables, Mindgating, and this Sabbatical Showcase.
I am grateful for those who served on taskforces
- the current Principles of Equity in Allocation Taskforce, and the Advising Task Force
- the original CLAS Governance Taskforce, which originated 4 CLAS governance committees
- Task Force for CLAS 500-Level Course Offerings, which made recommendations on 500 level courses that were sent to the Graduate Dean and Graduate Council
- Risk Reduction Taskforce, which produced a web-based set of guidelines and resources still in use by CLAS unit heads and faculty.
- Diversity Taskforce of 2005 worked on issues that the university would eventual address with the Office of Inclusion and Equity and whose work paved the way for GRIT, the Grassroots Inclusion Taskforce, to create our current inclusion plan.
- Fall Break Taskforce of 2007—my hope still springs eternal that your work will see full fruition. Or at least a Fall Breather next fall.
- Learning Space Taskforce and the Padnos Henry Remodeling Taskforce of 2007 whose work can be seen in better classrooms labs and is still influential as we make plans to do additional renovations.
And I’m grateful that you are involved in some of the work going on at the University level. For instance, CLAS colleagues Jodee Hunt, John Golden, Mary Schutten, Jon Hodge, Gretchen Galbraith, and Roxanne Mol are on the Ombuds Taskforce. Many are making a concerted effort to increase their understanding of and ability to contribute in our complex organization through participation in governance, like the University roles Karen Gipson and Tonya Parker have played this year and like our collegiate governance, which has characteristically been responsible and productive.
I am grateful for devoted Unit Heads and especially for their willingness to attend to this year’s tasks of “spring cleaning.” I am very grateful that nearly every unit used this year productively to reflect, prepare and clear the decks. Across all those units, we are better adapted, less needlessly complex, have fewer little frustrations, are more diverse and yet more connected, and have cleared pathways for our students to use on ever greater journeys. Many units accomplished the really gritty tasks of preparing for the future, knowing for example that a stage of the assessment process would take place next year for their unit. I see an increasingly sophisticated use of the assessment and planning processes that make them a more useful tool for meeting, even understand, our needs and aspirations.
I’m grateful other “things” in the most literal sense. AWRI opened a new facility recently which expanded its research capabilities. The new science building grows daily. The addition to AuSable will be in use Spring/Summer semesters. Labs were upgraded. Ventilation in the Calder Art Center was improved. MAK had a LEED certified wing added where many of you have offices, teach, hold meetings and even sometimes come to visit your dean. LSH finally got an elevator! That’s just some of the infrastructure that is directly for CLAS. But we all benefit from the new spaces and possibilities inherent in the new Library. And when Zumberg admits its new tenants, the shuffle will open up spaces in other buildings, and we’ll see additional benefits.
To say that I’m grateful is not to say that I’m satisfied, especially with regard to space. Our performance spaces are booked solid all the time. We’d benefit from more spaces to display visual work, additional sprung floors, more seminar-type rooms, differently configured rooms that suit new pedagogies. This will be an on-going process that will require high degrees of creativity and cooperation—but we’re making progress, and I’m grateful you’re willing to keep working with determination and good will on these challenges.
I’m grateful we have built something that is attracting wonderful students and giving them wings. We are supporting them well. Through great advising, engagement and empowerment, our students are increasingly seeing that they can attend the University of Cambridge in medieval history or Cornell Law School, as a couple of Alice Chapman’s students will next fall. Hunter Eberly has been tenured as a principal in a major orchestra. Our actors are landing great parts. Our film majors are working big projects. A student took his multidisciplinary English capstone project and rode that dream into a journalism post in the Middle East. I’m sure student names spring to mind for you. Be grateful for them; there is no higher privilege in our work than to empower our students. For me, I immediately flash on three of my own Grand Valley students: Philosophy and Classics major Abigail DeHart who this year is studying Sanskrit and Hindi in Uttar Pradesh, India and wanted to know if she could also be Skyped into meetings of the CLAS Student Advisory Committee; D.J. Koessler who went from the campaigns course I was grateful to team-teach with Danielle Leek—and 2008 was absolutely the best year of the millennium for it—to working for Chuck Todd and MS NBC; and this year’s outstanding grad student in English (which at least confirms that my literary theory seminar did no lasting damage), Rachel Curtis. I’m proud of you all.
Last fall I talked about a special responsibility of the liberal arts and sciences faculty: to resist language from the outside that distorts what we do. I said that only our success over these ten years and our ongoing stewardship gives us both the standing and the opportunity to do this. But hear me: the only way we can do so effectively is to develop and articulate a positive and sustainable alternative. And we need to hit a moving target, to articulate a strategic vision that will weather both the expectable and the imponderable challenges of 2015-2020.
Next year, we will have the chance to ponder the ubiquitous interview question that we warn our students that they will face (“Where do you want to be in 5 years?”). What would a better future for us look like? What will we be able to do then that we can’t now? And how will we know if we succeeded? Will more of our students be engaged in research, or community engagement, or international study? Will more of them be successful in their applications for fellowships, will more give conference papers, will more of them get into their first choice of job or graduate school?
We can justly be proud of all we have done, turning what was hoped for into what we accomplished. We won’t ever be complacent, but let’s take time to say it today: we in CLAS have done a fine decade’s work.
We all know, though, that the character of our College is not just a matter of how far we've come, but how far our aspirations reach. I remind you as often as I can of how lucky we are to be in this profession, especially working in a place like Grand Valley. I regularly recognize that by a little practice at Commencement that a few of you have noticed. When the platform party processes past your rows, I literally tip my hat to the faculty. I am proud to recognize that it’s your work that has made these graduations possible. But today is a different figurative tip of my cap: it’s both for our past accomplishments but also for our hopes and dreams that I can’t wait to see where we go next, and how we map our way to those goals. For now, at today’s milestone, please know that I am so proud to be your dean. And very grateful—to, and for, you.