The Currency of Character

The Currency of Character: Scarcity, Abundance and the Next Transitions

Frederick J. Antczak, Dean, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, Grand Valley State University

Spring 2013

 

We live in a day when the value of a higher education is under extraordinary scrutiny.  And sometimes it seems like the most fastidious scrutinizers are the loudest critics.  In many ways my remarks today—as a summary and synecdoche for this year’s accomplishments by the students, faculty and staff of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences—are intended to serve as a response to this scrutiny.  But I also want to put into words a choice we face implicitly every year:  in making the transitions that are demanded by our circumstances, will we shape our own professional lives cornered by an increasing sense of scarcity, or, seeing what we can do, will we act together to affirm and reinforce a common sense of persisting and available abundance?

 

One reason we are a profession and an institution in transition is because our funding environment is rapidly changing—and even if you’ve heard some part of it, this bears repeating.  You all know about the scissor-shaped graph that shows steeply declining state appropriations in mirror image to the increases in tuition, the legs crossing in 2003.  Well, The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that between 2008 and 2013, only two states increased support for higher education, Wyoming and oil-rich North Dakota.  The AVERAGE cut nationally was 28%; in this we find a place where Michigan is above the norm, cutting 32.4% of higher ed support over that time—that is, cut by a third even after the appropriation slashes of the late 90s and early aughts.  In the national list of cuts to public higher education, we’re tied for 12th; that is to say, we are the Mississippi of the midwest.[i][1] During that 5 year period, the state appropriation per full time student fell from $3,088 to $2,474—this during a time Grand Valley led the state in the increase of degrees granted annually, 23.7%.[2]  And it’s not as if we’ve been making the cuts back by gouging our students.  In the last 20 years, GVSU administrative costs, adjusted for inflation and the dollar for dollar replacement of state funding withdrawals, have gone up the equivalent of $10.[3] 

MSU President Lou Anna Simon observed, “Michigan has been disinvesting in education far before the recession and these catastrophic cuts. The priorities were not higher education, when other states were investing in education.”[4]  Under that pressure, we have excelled for a long time before 2008 in the very areas that the state asked us to.  We graduated students at an increasing rate, we stayed administratively lean, we admitted more and more students, we worked in public/private partnerships, we made great use of our existing resources, our faculty demonstrated great productivity.  Last year that got us one-time money from the Governor, which is in the short term spendable; but it is not the long-term dependable growth that might genuinely start to reverse the downward funding trend.  We are glad to have the one-time funds and grateful for the acknowledgement of our efforts, but as a public institution, we must continue respectfully to request, as we continue to earn, a future that is sustainable. 

That’s difficult when the state’s formula for measuring success seems to waver whenever politicians are more interested in directing short term dollars to their districts than in recognizing and promoting long term performance.  Recently, testifying before legislative subcommittee hearings as part of the state budget cycle, our President Tom Haas said, “Lansing policies and math can be very curious. Add students, lose funding for students. Reduce enrollment, and get more money per student.”  And while we may yet hear about Grand Valley receiving as much as a 3% increase in state funding for this coming year, that would just be an increase on a scandalously low level institutional appropriation—almost the lowest in the country for institutions of our kind.  It shouldn’t be confused with 3% of our overall budget; it would amount to something more like .42% to .51% of Grand Valley’s overall budget.

The problem is, our tuition has been forced up to a price point that, while still in the low middle of the 15 public Michigan universities, is difficult for a significant number of our students and their families to accommodate—especially our First Gen students.  We now find ourselves in direct competition with universities that for various historical reasons get twice or even almost three times the state allotment that we do.  So our competitors are in a position to provide more financial aid—to buy away students who, all things being equal, would rather come here.  Our aid packages require more to qualify, and pay less—and this is true despite the rapid increases GVSU has made to its aid packages, along a trajectory for financial aid that, again, is not sustainable. That means that we will have some students who would prefer to join us but are facing a stark economic choice.  Before they step into your classroom and can understand first-hand what a Grand Valley education offers, and long before they can fall in love with this place, they will sit around the kitchen table with their parents and say that University X offered them $1,000, $2,000, $5,000 more—often not looking at the bottom line remaining.  For working people, including the parents in this audience, a $5,000 annual difference is not negligible, especially for families that have more than one child in college.

One reaction to felt scarcity is a kind of professional pessimism—curling up to live smaller ourselves.  Pushed into a fiscal corner,  we hunker down and hang on, including hanging on to vestiges, some still relevant and some not so much, of the "way we used to do it"—even in a few cases if we can't remember why. Or, faced with scarcity, we could choose optimism—an optimism built from distinctively human capital, underwritten by the abundance of our skill and commitment and talent and energy and passion and collaboration.

From the beginning of this year, the Provost called us to react productively to material scarcity—to think about how we can make it work for more of our students, and how we can offer each of them more value.

In fact we are already doing so, we have been doing so.  For example, articles and blogs often bemoan that universities are full of out-of-touch elitists who work on arcane subjects while teaching ineffectively and not as often as a taxpayer has a right to demand.  Even if those charges are partially true somewhere else, “Ivory Tower” has never really described us at GVSU very well.  From the beginning of our history, our early colleges were at pains to break down the false distinctions between academic knowledge and its practical and professional applications.  Right down to today, the rich variety of service learning, internships and community engagement we design into CLAS programs shows we are involved with the larger world. What this year demonstrated is that we’re not confined in an ivory tower or ignorant of the world outside our arch.  Quite the contrary: in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, we embrace it.

For instance,

  • Our philosophers have worked in the prisons and reached out to collaborate on conferences with another area college and made them free to the public.
  • Our classicists celebrate their alumni who go on to careers in high tech as well as those headed for seminaries and graduate schools, and they take their love of classical literature out into the community.
  • Our biologists can often be found tackling local environmental projects as well as gathering crucial data on climate change.
  • Our faculty working in collaboration can be found climbing the steep trails of Haiti to gather complex data with potential for addressing critical problems for many developing countries.
  • Our biomedical scientists are working in the labs with undergraduates on research to inform how we address devastating diseases and by so doing training their students in sophisticated techniques that propel their medical school applications and careers forward. 
  • Our physicists have brought here the number crunching power to help understand the nano-world so that we can bring about new generations of technology in computing and elsewhere.  And they have helped educate the public on astronomy.
  • Our poets and writers have been recognized over and over for their high caliber which is another way of saying they help us all to understand our world differently and better.
  • Our communication interns are helping many organizations including non-profits to get their messages out.  Our COM faculty are helping us make sense of everything from the complex social media scene to human sexuality.
  • Our sociologists and psychologists give us a window on the intricate workings of our cities, social structures, addictions, and even madness itself.
  • Our artists and dancers and musicians and photographers and playwrights and filmmakers are in our communities, creating beauty and opening hearts and minds—and enriching those communities in the process.
  • Our geologists are helping us understand our ocean’s currents and the paths of hurricanes and the nature of volcanoes and the dynamics of fracking.
  • Our chemists are teaching students about the expanding field of green chemistry and helping to share their knowledge with the business community.
  • Water scientists at AWRI are addressing public questions about the lakes, taking on invasive species, and helping us reclaim wetlands and waterways in the Great Lakes region.
  • And so much more.

 

Our students have become doctors, dancers, designers, and diplomats—and our society needs all of them. They have become musicians in symphonies; they edit major publications; they serve on Presidential councils; they are the teacher of the year; they direct plays; they write speeches; they direct scientific research; they break down stereotypes of gender identity; they are coaches; they are therapists; they are professors.  And because they are liberally educated, many of them have accomplishments in more than one of those areas over the course of their lives. At some level it’s understood that as educated people, they will bring unique benefits to the socio-economic transformation of Michigan.  But we forget at our peril, that’s the easy part. I’m also interested in what’s much harder to measure—the richness of their appreciation of and participation in the arts, the depth of their reflections on their own and others’ lives, the critical flexibility that they can bring to the unprecedented challenges they will face, the empowerment to work within complex systems to a positive outcome, and the confidence to rally and catalyze groups in order to tackle tasks bigger and more “wicked” than anyone can handle individually.  They will hold leaders accountable. They will be leaders. 

All this said, it ought to be pretty clear that the mission we share to educate our students, more than 40% of whom are First Gen, is not only a value to the individual graduate, but a public good.  This is a good time to remind you that we are among the rare and lucky few who get to contribute to a mission like Grand Valley’s and a college like ours. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but notwithstanding the threat of scarcity, Grand Valley is—because of its decency and commitment and the very good company we find ourselves in—a damn good place to work.  One way or another when I talk with you, I always try to say that we’re lucky to do what we do—and we are twice blessed to do it here.  Now we’re just experiencing the other side of that blessing.   "For everyone to whom much is given, of him shall much be required."[5]

A pessimist may see scarcity as an occasion to dilute or degrade instruction, for how could we do better if the external world gives us less?  Instead we, especially we the faculty of CLAS, have heard it as a call to advance our pedagogy, to use in new ways technology or student assistants or other means to make our pedagogy sustainable. We must habituate and propagate these virtues, for our students’ sake. And this year demonstrated that we are doing that, and we are probably doing it in more ways than we realize.  One of my favorite tasks—and it’s a good thing because it’s one of my largest tasks every year—is to read all your workload plans.  It’s amazing to see what people are aspiring to do.  So I think you ought to see a glimpse too: I have asked each unit head to circulate to his or her faculty before the end of the semester a summary of what everyone in your unit is committing themselves to do with their Significant Focus next year.  Not only is sharing this information good for transparency, helpful for mentoring new faculty who want to know what excellence looks like, and useful to identify avenues of collaboration; I think you will be inspired, as I am, by the energy and ambition of our faculty, this year and every year.  We have faculty who have answered the problem of shrinking support by finding ways to dream bigger.

Money affects us, but it’s not about reconciling ledgers so much as reconciling ourselves to the duties and opportunities we take on in order to be fully vested members of this community.  What we call “being accountable” to each other is not primarily an act of bookkeeping, it is a moral act.  It’s about our character.   Last Fall I gave you six challenges: to

  • extend a personal connection, especially to first gen and non-traditional students, to keep more of them here to succeed;
  • invent teaching pedagogies to address our changing situation and students;
  • find new resources from on campus and beyond, and learning to use them in new ways to address emerging needs;
  • work your network to attract outside events and conferences;
  • engage more with faculty governance; or
  • align our plans and our evaluations to promote what we need done in our changing work.

Today we approach the end of an enormously challenging year in which you were even more enormously accomplished:  you—faculty, staff, even students—delivered on these challenges, you made the transitions. 2012-13 was a great year in the life our college.  So let me just say, well done, and Thank You!   

Thank you for the many different kinds of follow up and outreach, the teaching experiments that you shared with us through our Teaching Roundtables and the Teaching with Technology fair; the many grants you sought and the inventive ways you included students in your research and in your programs more generally; the conferences you brought here to campus or collaborated on in the community; the record numbers who ran for committees from a wider range of departments than we’d seen recently, and the hard work of designing and carrying out assessments and writing accreditation reports and departmental self-studies to keep us at the forefront.

I also want to thank the departments that have begun taking a good hard look at any gross differences between workload and student credit hours.  We need to make sure we don’t have unreasonable or unsustainable disparities in the credit hours for which we have tuition income and the workload costs committed to delivering the course in question.  And since we’re all in this together, we need to keep the balance of duties—the teaching and community engagement and research and service within departments—fair enough so that disproportionate responsibilities don’t always fall on the same people. That is to say, this is a time when we need to habituate commitments that balance and connect what we do.  We need to make them part of our character if we’re to make all the transitions that our times demand.  For instance, our college needs more people with the big-picture perspective that elective committee members develop; I count on you to take that perspective and make it work not just on the committee you’re elected to, but in and for the department you go back to.  Provincialism needs to be seen as an increasingly costly luxury, and we can no longer afford it in the moral budget of our college.

The college needs you to keep speaking up and sharing when you realize that you have a better practice in your department that could have value for others.  Unnecessary work and frustration that you can save others is ever more valuable. 

Half a dozen years ago, I asked you to throw off the bushels and let the light shine from the research you were already conducting.  Since then, more and more each year, you’ve published and promoted your work and thereby contributed to knowledge and GVSU’s reputation, and to the recognizability and value of its degrees.  CLAS faculty are now hitting at about twice the national averages on getting your grants.  Keep that up, and encourage your colleagues to make use of the support systems we have—from Dean Menon’s new faculty development seminars to the resourceful hard work Bob Smart is doing as Director of CSCE and that Chris Chamberlain is doing in the Office of Sponsored Programs—so that together we can push our work up to a new scale of opportunity, not just for ourselves but for our students.  Thinking too small is becoming a costly luxury.  In the coming year I specifically challenge my colleagues in the arts, humanities and social sciences to explore the additional resources that an NEA or NEH grant could afford, to think bigger about what we do, and what we CAN do, underwritten by our abilities, and our willingness to try.

And finally, thanks to all of you who said “yes” to the calls to present at and attend the Sabbatical Showcase and the Teaching Roundtables and the Faculty Research Colloquium.  Sharing what you do empowers your colleagues, opens up opportunity for collaboration.  It helps us to support your efforts.   And it enriches our community with a deposit of inspiration on which others can draw.  And speaking about sources of inspiration brings me back to this extraordinary year.

My assessment of our environment is that we’ll have more material challenges facing us next year and for years to come.  It will always be a temptation to think about it in terms of by this or that material scarcity.  But our talent and energy and commitment give us an ongoing reason for confidence—for optimism.  So, far from being driven by scarcity, if we remember what we did in 2012-13, we might instead find ourselves pulled, lifted, by a generous and generative moral abundance that we find in ourselves, accrued in the currency of our character.  

 

[1] Jordan Weismann, “A Truly Devastating Graph on State Higher Education Spending,” The Atlantic, March 20, 2013.

[2] GVSU Accountability Report 2012-2013 

[3]  Interview with Vice President McLogan, March 21, 2013.

[4] Cited in Ron French, “”College Tax’ Burdens Students, State,” Bridge Magazine, http://bridgemi.com/2012/01/college-tax-burdens-students-state/

[5] Luke 12:48.

 

 

 



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