Ready for More

August 27, 2015

Frederick J. Antczak, Dean of the GVSU College of Liberal Arts & Sciences

 

You must learn day by day, year by year, to broaden your horizon. The more things you love, the more you are interested in, the more you enjoy, the more you are indignant about, the more you are ready when anything happens.  ~Ethel Barrymore

 

I have a Facebook friend in, let’s call it a Big Ten University in a state just west of Lake Michigan. That person was venting to me the other day about how difficult it is to be ready for a new year when the “overseers” of the University, “barbarians at the gate,” keep talking about education simply as a commodity. 

Sometimes it’s difficult to find a different language for a world that seems to have no other approach to it.  But education is not simply, as the dictionary requires, “a raw material or primary agricultural product that can be bought and sold, such as copper or coffee”—though more than a few pennies and a lot of caffeine may be involved.

Academics like Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities and a former president of Cornell University and the University of Iowa, have written articles asking that we stop treating education as if it were a commodity.[i]  Rawlings points out that an education is not like a car, because in the case of education, the ostensible buyer—that is, the student—must put in the work to obtain the value.  People sometimes say that a person “receives” an education. But we know this is no simple transaction.  Over the years, fewer and fewer aspects of education have remained simple. 

Our students are hardly an 18-24 year old slice of the middle and upper-middle classes anymore—the modern reality is more complex, and a little more just—and faculty, though less rapidly, are also undergoing demographic changes.  Pedagogy keeps changing, in increasingly complicated response to everything from student and faculty diversity, to our increasingly sophisticated understanding of how people learn, to our perception of opportunities opened by developing technology. The relationship between the state of Michigan and its public universities is changing at a rate that makes prediction difficult, and compliance a wild and ragged chase every year.

For instance, this year GVSU anticipates receiving about $65 million in state funding, 18% of what it takes to run this institution.  That funding is tied to a cap on how much tuition can increase, but not to changes in what the state provides students to help them pay for college.  Some of what GVSU has received in recent years is directly tied to outstanding performance in key areas such as retention and graduation rates.  So the success of the students we graduated last spring has a material effect in keeping the price down for students this fall.  While administrative attention sometimes feels like “bean counting,” that activity plays a role in opening access and lessening one extrinsic drag on student success.  It is not as sublime a role as that of great teaching, but it’s a role nonetheless. 

Yet while we challenge the notion that education is a product that can be purchased outright, it may have some traits positively associated with a secondary definition of that term— “commodity” in the economic sense of being marketable and satisfying wants and needs, or “a useful or valuable thing, such as water or time.” 

I like the comparisons of education to water or time.  Seems like a club you want to belong to—one where the value seems inherent in the very nature of life.  At GVSU we have sustained the idea of liberal education and kept it tightly woven into the curriculum of every graduate.  Some universities have had to fight to get back even a semblance of liberal education after surrendering it to those who would turn all post-secondary education into short, cheap, and narrowly focused job training.  For instance, it took state legislation to get the humanities back into the curriculum at the University of Florida.[ii]

In the Chronicle last June, Eric Johnson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill addressed himself to claims by business leaders and politicians that they have a new model for education—when in reality it’s just a new model for job training that shifts the costs from the employer to the worker—not to mention shifting the risk, and blame, involved in training for specific jobs that may not be there on graduation day.  Along the way he points out that the shift in the narrative has made students complicit through their “anxiety-driven preference for career-focused classes and majors.”  It’s part of our job to soothe those anxieties, at least enough to move them out of the way of learning.

In his conclusion, Johnson quotes the UNC President Edward Kidder Graham who said, “[t]he thought now and then assails us that material efficiency and the passion to ‘get on’ in the world of things is already making it so that the liberal-arts college cannot exist.”  He goes on to point out that Graham’s words, circa 1916, called this a “passing phase” and encouraged the teaching of “the true wealth of life.”  So “commodification” is a chronic, recurring problem; I join Eric Johnson in hoping that we never view liberal education as hopeless anachronism. Maybe it is a good sign that the fight continues a hundred years later.  I also join Johnson in the concern that, ”faced with recessionary state finances and lawmakers who regard the public good as oxymoronic, university leaders have reached for the language of private investment and return.”[iii]   Academics make uninspired brokers of commodities—our hearts are not in that language because it’s not who we are.  Our passion lies elsewhere. 

Our passion makes us more focused on the opportunities represented by our colleagues across the college and the university.  For instance, just the other day, Al Steinman of AWRI sent me a link to an article written by a team of scientists about the importance of the arts to balancing their approach to problems.[iv]   Many such conversations are thriving here.  If you are new, or not currently in one, may I recommend that you attend the Research Clusters that Assistant Dean Taylor has big plans for, or the wildly various CLAS Faculty Research Colloquia which are held six times each academic year—I want you to live a very full life of the mind.  But if we can stave off the chronic commodification metaphor, what would be an effective response to the second problem? How do we engage the barbarians?

I’m not suggesting that you become embattled.  Our Classics colleagues would tell you that barbarians are actually just the unlucky ones who don’t speak our language.  They don’t understand us, nor perhaps we them.  Let me instead suggest that we do the equivalent of teaching them our language.  Some may remain Philistines, but at least we’ll be able to talk with them.

Start small and work your way up. Spend some time this year thinking about ways to engage your alumni and the community more generally in your discipline.  I applaud the efforts of a humanities committee last year to put poetry on the Grand Rapids bus system.  Others of you might work this year to ensure that younger minds get engaged with your field from a very early age.  These “pipeline” efforts increase diversity and access for future majors—and also future faculty colleagues.  As you think this year about the many kinds of service that could be projected and should be rewarded, put community engagement, governance, curricular work, facilitating high impact student opportunities right there alongside the time-honored service to the disciplines through journal editorship, running the organizations in your field and the rest. 

I already see an attitude shift in our region.  Sometimes it is the vague assertion by a neighbor that things are “really coming along” at GVSU.  Sometimes it is a music review in an east coast publication demanding to know where this cornfield is from which the New Music Ensemble sprang.  Sometimes it is the letter from a medical school asking for more from wherever those last candidates came from.  It is a local small business that would not trade its English alumna employee for anything.   Now that’s speaking our language.

But I think that simply repeating what we have done so effectively isn’t by itself going to be enough to sustain our success.  Other universities, even the Goliaths, have been visiting us, to examine how our connections to students work.  And let’s remember that across Michigan public universities, the average appropriation per in-state student is almost twice what GVSU’s is: other institutions, if they learn anything from us, will have more resources with which to imitate what we do.  So if we stand pat, our margin of excellence will shrink.  It’s timely, then, that this is a year for strategizing at the department level.  We have serious tasks ahead of our departmental communities.  We need to develop actionable and significant ways to assess departmental advising—and we’ll have some models to share, thanks in part to our estimable colleague Betty Schaner.  We must work on narrowing the dislocations between what we ask ourselves to do for assessment, and how we think about advancing our pedagogical and curricular goals.  Assistant Dean Tutt has some ideas about that.  And this year we’ll try to work out a more productive relationship between work projections and activity reports.    

But most importantly: if, on our watch, we’re to increase Grand Valley’s margin of excellence, we must do two things.  We must sustain GVSU’s rich legacy of personal connection to each individual student, and that’ll be the key to retention in the shorter term.  But in order to become a university ever more worth attending, we must extend the value of liberal education into signature academic programs. I’m eager for the first year of the new multimedia journalism major, and the new program in School Psychology.  But we must keep dreaming our dreams—and dream bigger.   Grand Valley’s margin of excellence depends integrally on work that only we can do.

This is a part of our profession they don’t teach us in grad school.  Nobody mentioned that academe was going to be thoroughly and continuously transformed from within and without.  This generation of teacher-scholars has had to be ready for more change—from the substance and materials of their discipline to the pedagogical methods and technological means of teaching it—than any before. And there is no reason to think the rate of that change will slow down this year. We’re in the midst of remaking our institution—and with it the very language for what we do.  Ivy may be in limited supply, but our library is an engine for learning experiences.  No budget for ivory towers, but we just opened some exciting learning spaces in the Kindschi Hall of Science—and let me just take this opportunity to say thank you to Doug Kindschi for his many contributions to Grand Valley.  Padnos Hall will be further customized next summer to better meet demand, and preparation never ceases for the facilities that we know we’ll need.   We need to be ready for more. 

 

The poet Josephine Miles wrote that, when meeting Goliath, David “for more was ready”.[v]  As we face the enormous and intimidating task of the new year, we must be a community of Davids, gamely sizing up the unsuspecting giant before us.  But we need to be ready for more.   In remaking our institution and the education we offer, we must excel in the discipline we study and share.   We must be ready to walk our talk—to model the lifelong learning that we try to inspire in our students.  We must be ready to foray into the scholarship that brings students along with us, and we must be ready to bring our students out into the world.  We must treat our students, our colleagues and our communities with the substance and grace, the generosity and élan that manifest how the liberal arts and sciences make life more worth living.  To stave off Philistines, the liberal arts start by making ourselves, and our students, ready for more. 

This year, as always, I’m deeply thankful that we face this important task of educating thousands of students and a wider public together.  I’m glad this is in your hands; I can think of none better.  But let me remind you how lucky we are to do this—and how compelling is our charge to be ready to seize the day, every day this year; our hours are long, but you’ll find that your years flit by.  

We have serious tasks ahead: most importantly, the strategic planning tasks ahead for your unit this year will precede our big once-a-decade accreditation process next year.  They will be best done as complexly interwoven tasks, not simple, isolated ones.  That’s okay.  To give a current and effective response to the tired old impulse of commodification, to answer the barbarians or even engage with them, we must remake ourselves.   It’s not simple to sustain or extend a margin of excellence. But we are liberally educated, and we’re ready for more.

 

[i] http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/06/09/college-is-not-a-commodity-stop-treating-it-like-one/?postshare=861433854429364

[ii] http://www.newrepublic.com/article/121308/what-purpose-do-humanities-serve

[iii] Business Can Pay to Train Its Own Work Force, Eric Johnson, Chronicle of Higher Education A29-30, June 26, 2015

[iv] Copyright © 2015 by the author(s). Published here under license by the Resilience Alliance.  Scheffer, M., J. Bascompte, T. K. Bjordam, S. R. Carpenter, L. B. Clarke, C. Folke, P. Marquet, N. Mazzeo, M. Meerhoff, O. Sala, and F. R. Westley. 2015. Dual thinking for scientists. Ecology and Society 20(2): 3. http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-07434-200203

[v] “David”, in To All Appearances, Josephine Miles.



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