We Did All That

 

We Did All That: Celebrating Our Tenth Year as a College

(And Getting Ready for Whatever’s Next)

 

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

Faculty and Staff Meeting, August 22, 2013

 

 

Colleagues of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences: a happy beginning to a new academic year. Every new year is an occasion to look back and see how we have served the educational mission of the University—and to ask how we may play CLAS’s integral role even a little better. But this year marks a very special occasion.


It’s hard to believe it’s been almost a decade.  In the fall of 2003, Provost Gayle Davis advanced her initiative to reorganize the existing Grand Valley “divisions” by opening a national search for a founding dean of the largest college—our own College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.  Some regarded it, in fact, audaciously too large, with an unimaginable charge to produce almost 2/3 of the University’s student credit hours with a little under 60% of the faculty, to prosper all of our units, and to make the most of our size and complexity.

 

At that point we knew about only a few of the challenges and opportunities ahead.  Among the three divisions, there had been differences in governance, personnel and curriculum processes; the challenge was to figure out a structure to govern ourselves robust enough to be equal to the task, but sufficiently lean as not to become full time employment for faculty willing to participate.  We had a broad new range of interdisciplinary opportunities; we had to figure out concretely how to take curricular and scholarly advantage of them.  And we had to build this new College on the fly, but not from scratch, constantly recognizing and leveraging our different strengths, being willing to change to whatever worked better.

 

Meantime, the student body continued to grow in surprising ways, not just in size but in academic qualifications.  The state continued to disinvest on an unprecedented scale in public, higher education, shifting away from its commitments of previous decades, and making us almost completely a privately funded university. The state this year will provide only 14% of our operating budget.

 

Through all this, we forged an ambitious shared goal: providing “the best undergraduate program of liberal education in a public comprehensive university anywhere.”  Facing such deep questions and broad ambitions, who wouldn’t have trepidations about a big new complex organization?

 

But in fact, we did all that—we proved equal to our challenges, and we are measurably closer to that ultimate goal.  We should begin by recognizing what our students have done. 

 

  • our students graduate at greater rates; they earn prestigious fellowships (winning during this decade for the first time the Hollings, the Fulbright, the Boren, the Gilman, the Knowles, the Goldwater and many more); more of them now go on to professional schools.  Our grads Teach for America, join the Peace Corps, take active roles in cultural life from theatre companies to symphonies to Pixar; they become part of NGOs and diplomatic initiatives and so many other exciting projects and enterprises to develop their own talents and enrich the lives of others.  Outcomes assessment, anyone?

 

  • But of course our students are not the only accomplished people in CLAS. We were fearless, well pretty much fearless, as teaching innovation grew and the infrastructure to support it diversified and expanded ever more quickly.  In this decade we found productive ways of using social media for teaching and learning--holding virtual office hours, flipping classrooms, creating hybrid courses and building better language labs and class wikis.  Now we can make multi-media materials available to our classes online in a variety of ways—ways SO simple and easy to implement that we discovered even a dean can do it.  We assemble multidisciplinary one credit courses to take full advantage of upcoming events and guest speakers, and we harness new resources whenever they become available, like those of the Library’s new Knowledge Market. 

 

  • The advising system is light years from where it started.  The CLAS Academic Advising Center has grown considerably.  We have developed a host of materials for the web.  We have clarified roles for our dedicated faculty advisors.  Together, we’ve made this increasingly complex place increasingly easier to navigate for the expanding student body we serve.  I would be remiss if I did not cite the tireless and resourceful leadership of the Center’s Director Betty Schaner.  But Betty is the first one to credit the faculty with taking the handoff and running with the ball.

 

  • We shared our innovations at Teaching With Technology fairs and the CLAS Teaching Roundtables; if there’s one thing our College is undeniably good at, even unmatched, it’s cultivating venues for sharing what we learn.  We propagated what we learned in our Sabbatical Showcase, which led to scholarly collaborations, team teaching and joint publication.

 

  • Several years ago I asked you to publish and promote more of the great work you were doing.  Your response to my call for dissemination, plus an increase of our faculty from just over 400 to about 500 tenured and tenure track faculty, has led to incredible growth in the measures and results of scholarship.  Together you’ve pushed your research and creative aspirations so far that we had to grow our grants capacity and campus research infrastructure to keep up with you.  To give you one material index of what you have accomplished, the indirect cost return from grants in the last fiscal year were an order of magnitude larger than in 2004—and in the College budget, every dime of that increase has been recycled to faculty development and projects, so you will be able do even more.  Now we can hardly figure out how to pare down the descriptions of your vast output so the reporting of it can fit in our quadrennial College publication on scholarship and creative achievement.  A good problem to have, because research activities develop your potential and that of your students.   Grants can fuel as well as steer your teaching, and enable you to dream bigger—dream about new instrumentation, about taking more students to a great conference or historic site, about all the cool things we really might find a way to afford.

 

  • And, though it was a humbler task, there’s another accomplishment that helped make the others more possible.  We built a governance infrastructure—four standing committees that have proven strong enough and agile enough to take on their challenges (our Personnel Committee learned to handle fairly and thoughtfully 100 cases a year; our Curriculum Committee has become the example of high expectations across campus). We have committees responsive enough to diagnose and address College needs (the Faculty Development Committee runs sabbatical writing workshops that are the envy of campus; the Faculty Council has collaborated with a variety of entities to think “out of the box” and to bring to our website resources on everything from faculty advising to academic integrity to getting your groove back).

 

Over the last decade we have many achievements to take pride in:

  • So many new programs—from the summer fun of G3 to new minors like Archaeology and new majors like CSAT.  So many curricular advancements, so many bottlenecks addressed, so many new opportunities for students. 
  • So much service to the university, other colleges, the community and the world.  Literally millions of hours of work done by energetic, talented, expert and motivated faculty, staff and students.
  • GVSU is one of the leaders in the nation on Faculty Fulbrights as our winners—like Amy, Scott, Erik, Joel, John, Laura, Patricia—will tell you.
  • We launched many new scholarships, departmental publications, and conferences.
  • And though the building of infrastructure can seem slow, let’s look back over 10 years at the labs we’ve refurbished, the retrofits in older buildings—geez, we actually have an elevator in LSH—the new wing on MAK, an extension of AuSable and the new Science Building now underway, the new building at AWRI financed by donors. And let me mention the Library; it does not exactly belong to CLAS, but who can doubt that benefits us directly and enormously?

 

Step back a decade and you’ll see that the tangible progress is staggering.  

 

And, pun intended, look what we weathered together.  Flooding rainfalls, rapid growth, new software—things that, while no big deal in moderation, were challenging when they came in what seemed rapid succession, or even simultaneously, or with an imminent deadline.  We proved resilient.  Because we rose to take on the challenges together, we did that.  We all did that.

 

So—what’s next?  Well, first, let’s remember how lucky we are to do what we do—and then celebrate ten years doing all that in this context.  You’ll find on the College website a list that already has more than 30 events showcasing the Liberal Arts and Sciences at Grand Valley.  As the year goes on, if your unit has appropriate events to include, please talk with me or Monica Johnstone in my office.

 

What’s next financially?  No one would be surprised to hear of more challenges in the short term.  But in CLAS, we know that living systems evolve through adaptation to environmental stressors—and if they don’t change, they either have to move where conditions are different or face possible extinction.  Over these 10 years we have grown a collegiate culture that’s adapted successfully, if sometimes painfully, to every challenge that came our way.  We know, as educators, that the best long-run answers to short-term challenges are not reactive, but proactive.  So whatever the external challenges that face us this year or in coming years, in the most important ways the future is in our hands. 

 

Now that may sound like the basis for some really heroic request for this year.  Actually, I want to ask something much more modest, but something that might prove, at this particular juncture, more useful.

 

It’s always hard to predict, and I’m pretty confident we’ll look back on this prediction in the spring and laugh.  But all the celebration aside, we may be in for a quieter bridge year, in between big accomplishments and bigger aspirations—and bigger challenges.   I asked you last year to meet some ambitious individual goals for faculty, staff and students, and I was delighted to report at the Sabbatical Showcase your big accomplishments.  Next year, 2014-15, will involve the whole University in the aspirational tasks of strategic planning. So flanked by big accomplishments and bigger aspirations, I want to propose for our tenth year something in between:  that we look not only at individual achievements but also at our communities’ operations, not only at grand visions at the university level but also at how well we function locally to achieve them.  I’m suggesting that we take the year to re-examine the structures and procedures that have been developed in CLAS and see if, successes notwithstanding, we should update some of them.

 

For this charge, I won’t use the buzzword "continuous improvement."  That’s not because it’s old enough to already have lost its buzz.  It’s because I am, proudly, a professor of the liberal arts and sciences; specifically because that education gave me a rhetorician’s attention to words.  There is a discourse, imposed largely from outside, that treats, judges and reshapes the university like a business profit/loss center:  “Customers!” “Stakeholders!” “Deliverables!” We as the faculty and staff of a university know that each of these words deplete the traditional meaning of “students” or “citizens” or “scholarship.”   Let’s never give in to that discourse.  

 

“Yo, I had to study Maimonides and Milton and Mozart in college, and I don’t remember using ANY of them to get my first job—what a waste those courses were!”  In a word, no.

 

But to resist that mentality, we as faculty and staff of a public university know we have to balance the books in order to keep the lights on, to keep getting raises annually, and to keep hiring new faculty, as not all of our sister institutions have managed.  We know that we have a public accountability—and that over this decade we have fulfilled it better than most. 

 

So instead of another dose of “continuous improvement,” how about we say this? If late August is the spring of the academic year, let’s undertake a little spring cleaning. 

 

What do I mean concretely? My office will “go first” in September by looking at our operations, asking questions like, is the distribution of associate dean duties the optimal one? Can unit head meetings be improved?  Are our advisory committees doing their intended work, and sufficiently vigorous to have an impact? Is the way we do new faculty orientation really helping faculty get off to a good start, and is our new unit head orientation helping form leaders fit for collegial deliberation?

 

Then in October and November I want to push spring cleaning to the department level. Every department can ask at least some of these questions: can we do faculty meetings better? How effective is our new faculty mentoring, and where is there room for improvement?   How is the advising of our majors really working, and how do we know? Can we make the way we assign the baseline work of the department more equitable and more transparent? Do we have an adequate process for evaluating the unit head? Appropriate criteria for selecting a new one? Are we building a deep bench of leadership at the department level?  How, while fully respecting what each of us does in the classroom, can we somehow 'map out' the curriculum of our major so that we’re sure where key ideas get introduced, how they get tested, reinforced and extended, and when, perhaps, they get applied or practiced.

 

 

In January my office will again go first.  We need to make sure that very scarce resources are not distributed according to some thoughtless sedimentation of precedent, petrified by the accumulating weight of years of unexamined practices, but rather in a way that supports what faculty and departments do now in support of their hopes for themselves and their students, and the goals of the College and University.  We will recalibrate our resources to fit the work we do now, the faculty we have now, the students we serve now.

 

Then in February, we want to involve College governance.  The CLAS governance structure has been in place for approaching 10 years: should the Faculty Council ask questions about how it’s working?—is the number, size and function of committees robust enough to do their work, but not so much as to create bureaucracy where responsiveness should be? One challenge for a big college is always to be well connected to our Senate representatives—connected with communication flowing in both directions.  It’s interesting to imagine ways that conversation could take place, but especially with two of our colleagues leading the UAS, now’s a good time.

 

In our March meeting, I’ll report on our reconsideration of how the College Office does things.  I’ll challenge the committees to include in their annual reports similar rethinking.  I will ask the unit heads how that process played out close to home.  And I challenge our Senators, in concert with our active, informed and engaged faculty  to make CLAS connection to University governance more potent and more relevant. 

 

We will find that it’s nobler work than it sounds—because it all comes back to our integral role in our University's mission.  What could be more integral to “educating students to shape their lives, their professions and their societies”?  Whatever the current or future misconceptions about our work, or the distorting pressures on it, it's our role as the faculty of liberal arts and sciences to insure that it remains, at its core, about deep and layered understandings, about learning what it means to be human in this difficult, invigorating age, and about recovering voices drowned out by all the noise.  These are the educational ideals for which we’ve worked and sacrificed—and changed, and innovated.  We’ll remember that they’re why, at the root, we did all that.

 

If, this year, we reshape a few of our operations so we can do any part of that work a little better, then we will build on the accomplishments of our remarkable first decade--and  make ourselves even more ready for whatever comes next.

                                                      



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