We Must Be Giants: New Challenges, Enduring Commitments

CLAS Faculty & Staff Meeting
August 27, 2009

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

Grand Valley State University

 

“We stand on the shoulders of giants.”  That’s a metaphor that has been taken up, ironically and otherwise, by everyone from Didacus Stella to Isaac Newton to Friedrich Nietzsche.  But I mean it in its most direct sense: we in CLAS at Grand Valley are recipients and beneficiaries of the legacy of others.  We adopt its commitments and adapt its approaches.  We rebuild it to our needs as they emerge and as we come to understand them better.  In our turn we pass that legacy on so that others (say, the dozens of new CLAS colleagues we’ve met today) may someday scramble up, doubtless more gracefully, and see even further than we do.  So let us begin this year by thinking about our legacy, about academic debts and generosities, about current signs of progress and portents of challenges to come, and about how we might rise to the occasion this particular year—including some specific invitations involving students.

 

As we start this academic year, fresh and recharged, excited by the introduction of new colleagues and students, relieved and elated by the singular health and vigor of our remarkable university, it’s useful to consider what a huge debt we have to a variety of people.  It came home forcefully to me last spring, when one of our faculty accepted praise with unusual grace, saying that he was just following the good example of the giants who had gone before him—although, he observed wistfully, those giants were gone.  It is unnerving when we lose giants (they must be giants, right, for us to be here?).  Part of what it means to be a community is to remember and honor their contributions.  And it can be sobering the first time you look around and realize who’s left to take on all those responsibilities.  But it has ever been thus:  those giants, our mentors, once were like us, intellectually fuzzy-cheeked, admiring their seniors and wondering how they could ever even manage to recognize a breach, much less suffice to be the ones now to stand in it.

 

So as a way of beginning this new year, I ask you to reflect about just who those giants have been for you.  Think of the encouraging word someone said to you at a key moment while you were writing your thesis.  Later you began to get students of your own, those often unintentional teachers in our lives; think about the revealing questions they asked, the bracing enthusiasm they showed, or remember, after you taught for a while, the former student who visited your office or sent an email five or ten years after graduating, reporting that he or she finally “got” what your class was about, and it had made a difference. Then remember  the mentors and the senior colleagues whose words and examples burn into our minds—in ways that would probably scare them a little, if they really believed we were actually paying attention.  Likewise our contemporaries in the discipline can inspire, through their brilliance and energy.  Finally the wise professor will never underestimate the wisdom, hard earned and deeply rooted, of our superb and dedicated support AP and COT staff.  So if ever someone was a giant for you, this is your chance, this challenging year, to repay that generosity—by passing it along, by paying it forward.  We know how that can help keep a student in school, or progressing toward a degree.  In a moment I’ll get to some of the challenges that make this a uniquely demanding year.  But clearly we have the resources; we can be giants, and I can prove it. 

 

John Cotton Dana, an American art librarian and historian, said that “[w]ho dares to teach must never cease to learn.”  We’re able to fulfill our obligations because we remain in some sense scholars.  In that spirit, the College has produced for this fall a report accounting to our many constituencies just how rich and various is our faculty and student scholarship.  Today you receive our Scholarly and Creative Achievements report, following our Quadrennial Report last year and the original publication we did prior to that, called The Teaching Art.  Please have a look; I hope that some strong interdisciplinary collaborations in teaching or scholarship could come from what you find.  Next year we will report on CLAS service, and in subsequent years CLAS’s rota of accountability will continue to turn—each cycle led, as appropriate for us at Grand Valley, by teaching.  Like its other siblings, this year’s report on our scholarly and creative activity could not hope to be exhaustive.  But it does, I think, give you a taste of the many flavors of the faculty’s work; like quark flavors, they are up and down, strange and charming, from the bottom and at the top.  They are flavors that add immeasurably to the depth, currency and quality of teaching among us.  I’m proud to say that no one who reads the report can doubt that we are the “student-centered and diverse learning community that engages in critical inquiry extending knowledge to enrich and enliven individual and public life” that we talk about in our mission statement.  Perhaps there’s an even better way to think about it: when I take account of CLAS faculty’s achievements, the evidence is clear: we can be extraordinary; we can be giants.

 

Supporting you in that process is part of my job; and it is part of the work, the absolutely essential work, of the AP and COT staff here today.   Of course I’d love to have a lot more resources to lavish around, but we are “doing what we can with what we have,” as President Haas says.  And at the beginning of what will be an extraordinary year, we’re doing a lot better than other places, and better, judging from the condition of the state, than you might ever expect.  This manifests itself in matters little and big.

  • Summer school attendance was up by about 2%.  This eased some pressure on bottleneck courses, and so can accelerate our students’ pace to graduation.  I ask you as departments to talk about how we might serve our students better with spring and summer terms of 2010.
  • The Shaping Our Future Campaign is enjoying surprising success. I believe that even if the state again fails to fund it, in 2010 we will finally break ground on our desperately needed new library and information commons and be able to concentrate on the next priorities in line, several of which are very important for CLAS.  Any new space in Allendale will benefit everybody here.
  • The CLAS Fund for Excellence is receiving some generous donations and last year I was able to fund nine deserving projects with that additional resource.  Thank you for your generous support of CLAS excellence.  This giving comes on top of your very generous contributions to the GVSU Faculty/Staff campaign.  Whether or not it makes headlines, our faculty and staff are extraordinarily generous in giving back to our University—and remember, gifts to endowed funds are matched by the President.   A heartfelt thank you.
  • We hope our additional efforts to support your grant-writing have made a positive difference.  Grant applications are up and are bearing fruit, in the largest indirect cost return during my deanship—money we turn right back to the support of your scholarship.
  • In its first year, the CLAS Academic Advising Center worked devotedly on behalf of our students—for a recent example, the first cohort of students admitted into the new program which secures early admission to MSU medical school.  Kudos for the careful and caring work they’ve done to supplement and enhance faculty advising.
  • The Out-of-the Box seminars which Faculty Council spearheaded, our College Faculty Development Committee co-hosted, and in which quite a number of you participated, sowed many ideas that are already growing.  For example, our CLAS colleague in Chemistry Bob Smart in the Center for Scholarly and Creative Excellence has already centralized the on-campus support of your work.  Some exciting new collaborations also started with your discussions in Out-of-the-Box.  As you heard from Grace Coolidge of the Faculty Council, this flexible, time-saving, and effective style of faculty consultation is set to continue with tenure and promotion standards discussions.  Please do join me and CLAS faculty governance in these conversations when they happen this year.
  • Working with our amazing Trustees—candidly, they are the most dedicated and thoughtful Board I’ve ever had the privilege to work with—the central administration enabled us to grow the faculty, grow the staff, and grow your salaries in a year when many institutions are suffering serious cuts (for instance there’s a fascinating article in the August Vanity Fair about the self-induced financial crisis Harvard is facing).  Our CLAS colleagues Tom Haas and Gayle Davis worked hard on an economically realistic but educationally responsible university budget; I hope you will express your appreciation personally when you see them.
  • The all-volunteer Grassroots Inclusion Taskforce was a model of what we are trying to accomplish to make our College an environment where everyone is welcome, and everyone can thrive.  The faculty, staff and students have worked together in high spirits and will have a draft plan for all of us to consider soon.  Inclusion is an intellectual value that enriches education for the 21st century world in which our students will live.  I look forward to a plan that helps us in CLAS to continue to be leaders in inclusion.
  • Today we celebrate the new status as academic departments of both the Annis Water Resources Institute and Cell and Molecular Biology.   To Unit Heads Al Steinman and Mark Staves, and all your colleagues, congratulations. 
  • And as you’ve already seen, we have hired very well, and we have done so for several years, growing from a low of 402 tenure track FTE in 05-06.  Fortified by our terrific new people, and blessed with having very few retirements and departures this year, we’ve grown to 514 tenure track faculty.  Buoyed by 74 affiliates CLAS, as we start the fall, has 588 permanent faculty.

No wonder the US News and World Report has ranked us the #1 up-and-coming University in the Midwest.But we can also see challenges ahead.

  • Most importantly, a year when so many of the tuition payers and taxpayers who support us are struggling, we must build even more responsive habits of stewardship.  Our tuition for 2009-2010 has grown $217 per semester, to over $8300 per academic year—a figure, to be fair, that has risen that high almost entirely because of our state’s systematic disinvestment in higher education.  Through our industry and imagination, in 2009-2010 we must give our students their money’s worth.
  • We’ll need to help our students understand that opportunities such as internships and other engagements with the world outside our gates—even those opportunities that are unpaid—may make the difference when it comes time to compete for admission to graduate school, or in this job market.  My particular thanks to our colleague in Political Science Kevin denDulk for his giant effort to get “GV in DC” up and running with the Washington Center, and thanks to all of the departmental  internship coordinators, who are having measurably increased success.  When you are advising students or talking with their families, please help us to explain the educational possibilities of internships.
  • Another way we can help our students is to teach them to speak more lucidly about the skills they learn in the majors. To be more self-conscious in knowing what they know and more confident and explicit in its application is, first, an intellectual value.  Sometimes it’s hard for students to fully appreciate just how much they have grown.  Our faculty gives them a great liberal arts education; we can also help them to talk about it in terms that the Peace Corps or graduate school or an employer will value.  In many places I think co-curricular and extracurricular activities, colloquia and clubs have begun this work; we are building disciplinary learning communities that are inclusive, powerful, humane—and fun.  But I want to suggest today that our capstone courses may also afford some of these opportunities, and I ask you to think about those courses this fall with this need in mind.
  • Many changes have occurred in the Elementary Ed minor and teacher education programs.  Lots of work went into these changes, required in response to fast-veering changes in State requirements.  We really have worked effectively with our Education colleagues in the development phase, under the gun of state deadlines; in the implementation phase there are bound to be more obstacles. Let’s lift one another over them.
  • Another round of strategic planning—aimed at 2015—is on the horizon, and we will begin to extend and refine our plans early next year.
  • Finally as we think of our students—as their teachers, and as their advisors—we must understand in our ever-more-tuition-driven University that recruitment, enrollment, retention and progress toward a state of the art degree must be, in the spirit of Vincent Tinto’s visit last year, everyone’s concern.  We will get more electronic tools in this effort as the year goes on, and I encourage faculty to learn and use them, so that we may better support our students.

In order to continue to build on the work of our University’s giants, even in these tough economic times, we must continue to focus on our primary goal, that is, to offer the best undergraduate liberal arts education in the state of Michigan. Let me say, I believe we are closing rapidly on that goal.So that we may take stock of where we are in a changing educational scene, we’ll continue to benchmark on a national scale.For example, we will develop our new approach of inviting external consultants to assist departments in reflecting on their self studies, to give them truly national context.The School of Communications has already undergone such consultation; Philosophy will meet with their consultants early this Fall.And we will move toward two or three such visits a year so that each unit will have the benefit of external consultants every second self study—that is, about once a decade—to give us perspectives that will help make us better.

 

This is a year of significant challenges for our state, our students and their families.  Even though GVSU is doing well, our students are still in a much more challenging economic situation, and living it every day.  With the tuition increase—smaller than the average for state institutions, leaving our tuition also well below the average—our various publics are going to expect more; their eyes are on us to see what we do.  There’s one particular way I’d like to invite the whole staff and faculty of CLAS to assist our students, and we’re going to have to change one habit, or an inertia, to do it. 

 

For all the good things we do with our students, the data show that we do not cultivate our very best majors for fellowships and scholarships very effectively.  Even though our freshmen are better and better qualified—for instance this fall, we have more than 50 additional Honors students in a smaller entering class, and more than 30 have declared interest in CLAS majors—the numbers of nominees for scholarships like the Rhodes, Marshall, Fulbright, Udall, Truman, Gates-Cambridge, Madison, Goldwater and so on are actually going down. I was stunned that with so many students going in the direction of the natural and mathematical sciences, we only produced one Goldwater candidate last year.   Some time this fall, the University will welcome a Director of the new Office of Fellowships to assist in this work; scholarship descriptions and deadlines are posted on the www.gvsu.edu/fellowship website, and linked to ours. This is a great move: too many first generation students have no idea how external funding works or how to find it.  Most don’t know that you can apply for opportunities throughout your education, and not just at the start of college. Or they think they are not special, or not good enough, and simply rule themselves out of the running.  With better students and better support, I ask you to reach for higher goals.  I ask the faculty and staff of CLAS to collaborate in fostering more of our students to be candidates, and winners, of such prestigious scholarships.  This is a good work that will return good benefits; given the predictable effect on recruiting, such awards will attract many more excellent students to matriculate in the future.  In our spring meeting, to the extent that we have counts by then, I’ll report on our first outcomes—but for a real measure of success, this must be a long-term, multiyear commitment to our students.

 

Each year, I encourage us to reflect on how lucky we are to do what we do.  Part of that good fortune has been the generosity of good people surrounding us, fulfilling that enduring commitment.  Let’s remember that in the life of the mind, every act of support, kindness and inspiration incurs a debt owed not so much reciprocally but transitively.  For us as teacher-scholars, responding to the generosity of the giants in our lives is not a reciprocal, but transitive, activity.  So, whatever helped us get here, from our undergraduate days to our time as junior (or even senior) faculty colleagues, let us repay that debt this year, notwithstanding its challenges, with enduring commitments to our students and our faculty and staff colleagues. 

We must take this task on ourselves; the preceding generation of giants is gone, there is no one else to do it.  But then again, there is no one better to rise to this occasion than the people in this room right now, the CLAS faculty and staff.  This year, we must be giants.

 

 



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