Affirming our Traditions

Affirming our Traditions: CLAS Faculty, Staff and Student Accomplishments, 2007-2008


Frederick J. Antczak, Dean

College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

April 18, 2008



Over and over again this year, as we were tested in our values and challenged by change, I thought about what it means to have a tradition in an academic community.  Of course I mean GVSU’s tradition, but now after four years I think we can begin to speak of a CLAS tradition.  Today I want to talk about how the elements of our tradition—excellent teaching, scholarship in support of that teaching, wonderful service on and beyond campus—were renewed and extended this year.


In some senses tradition and change seem opposed.  When I worked at the University of Virginia, they spoke as if Mr. Jefferson was about to walk around any corner.  I’m sure Yale’s Skull and Bones group has the same soiled hoods and costumes as they did at their founding.  But as we found this year, circumstances change, presenting new challenges and opportunity.  It really is possible to think about tradition and needed change together.  For example, Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 book After Virtue examined the concept of tradition and the role it plays in the creation of community.  MacIntyre’s insight is that the only way to affirm a tradition is to extend it, to adapt and advance it through new changes and challenges: to keep a tradition, it must change.  Because we faced this year’s challenges—managing a tight budget productively, bringing many new faculty on for fall, creating department documents from Workload to assessment—we moved forward in 2007-2008.  Let me tell you about some of those advances.


Today is a celebration of the energizing scholarly achievements of recent sabbaticals, the essential work accomplished over a year of meetings by your governance committees, and also the recognition of the excellent service of some individuals to whom we all are indebted.  Today you will see the geographer listening to the psychologist, the classicist and the scientist hanging on the words and images of the animator, the biologist pouring over the display presented by the anthropologist, trying to understand more widely our common work.  We see this effort also in the CLAS Faculty Research Colloquium—and I want to single out Mark Staves this afternoon, for doing a superb job of keeping these colloquia going with an ever widening range of faculty presenting their work-in-progress.


Events such as the Sabbatical Showcase, the Faculty Research Colloquium, the new and energetic Evolution for Everyone group, and the many collaborative projects in which our faculty and students are engaged in all contribute to extending our tradition by updating and enriching the quality of education we can offer.


It’s important for faculty to appreciate that they are not alone in this work.  We need to recognize the achievements of our College staff: Connie Ingham of Biology received the Maxine Swanson Award, and Betty Schaner of CLAS Advising received the Outstanding Academic Advising and Student Service Award.  Jim Schaub from the School of Communications won monetary support for his film project on African American Migration to Muskegon.  Many of our lab supervisors and even some of the College Office staff took a CPR / AED course provided by our colleagues in Movement Science—all passed their certification.  To all of our staff, let me say that by your flexibility, your courage in learning new things, and in your undoubted dedication to our common enterprise, you’ve affirmed a tradition long standing on this wonderful campus—by extending it in new places and to new heights.


Our students, too, had an amazing year: at the regional festival of the Kennedy Center, our Theatre students took many certificates of merit and put GVSU on the college theatre map.  The Trumpet Ensemble won a national award for the second year running in a field that included top music conservatories.  Physics and Chemistry students were well represented at the prestigious conference at Argonne Labs. Amber Welling of Movement Science received the award as Major of the Year for the National Association of Sport and Physical Education.   Karina Moy was named a Most Promising Minority Student by the American Advertising Federation.  Movement Science students won the Athletic Training Quiz Bowl.  Matthew Breen, a graduate research assistant at AWRI received an American Institute of Fisheries Research Assistance Award.  Promising undergraduate writer David LeGault won the student Niemeyer Award.  In the last week or so many departments have been presenting their awards to their majors; we celebrate all of those too.  Perhaps most spectacularly, the New Music Ensemble’s CD made number one on the Amazon classical music chart and has become the darling of many music critics—in New York City, on NPR, and across the country.


These brief mentions of only some of the wonderful things that happened for our students this year understate the enormous commitment, talent, and the blood, toil, tears and sweat that led to these achievements.  But let us not forget their faculty sponsors: our faculty supported these projects constantly and resourcefully—and sometimes at novel times of night and weekend!  Our faculty taught their students well—and well beyond the classroom.  That affirms a tradition which begins in the very soul of this place; but the reach of our tradition of teaching excellence was extended by our students’ achievements throughout the region and across the country.


Indeed Faculty achievements in every aspect of academic life made us proud again this year.  Bob Smart won the faculty Niemeyer Award. James Goode received the Ferrell Book Prize for Negotiating the Past: Archaeology, Nationalism, and Diplomacy in the Middle East, 1919-1941.  Judy Whipps won a Melon Prize for her work in philosophy.    Roger Ellis is going to serve on the selection committee for the World Theatre Festival in Monaco in 2009.  Debbie Herrington won a Pew Teaching with Technology Award.  The US Department of Agriculture honored Eric Snyder’s research team.  Al Steinman was named the outstanding reviewer for the Journal of Environmental Quality.  Paul Wittenbraker received the Michigan Campus Compact Award.  Karen Gipson received an Impact Award from the Women’s Commission.  Maria Cimitile received the Barbara Jordan Award.  And Steve Mattox was recently named the College Teacher of the Year by the Michigan Science Teachers Association. 


That’s just some of the recognition of our people—those who aren’t particularly shy about letting us know.  At the beginning of the year, I asked you to come forward about your accomplishments, to let your light shine.  To an increased extent you did, although we are still discovering great things our faculty has done.  In the cacophony of academic life, if we do not blow our horn, we will not be heard or noticed.  But there are emerging measures of our accomplishment.  Thanks in good part to the efforts of our College Director of Communication and Advancement, Dr. Monica Johnstone, I am proud to report that this academic year, 66% of the faculty noted in the sketches and news in The Forum were from CLAS.  Also this year we assembled and shared widely a list of the service roles that we are performing off-campus on community boards—I find it delightful reading.  From Allendale’s zoning board to the John Ball Park Zoo, 131 board positions (that we know of) are filled by CLAS faculty.


In that connection, and in your behalf, I must ask for your help.  To join forces with the new CLAS Alumni Board, I’m organizing a CLAS Community Constituent Committee, to assist with the placement of our students and the politics of the post-med school environment in the region.  In all of our many contacts, CLAS faculty know many of the influential members of the community who may be disposed to be helpful.  I’m asking that you forward me such names as they occur to you, and to continue to think this summer about which of our community constituents might be appropriate to support our College.


But let me return to the topic of the faculty.  Faculty constitute an intellectual treasure that will depreciate if neglected, but appreciate markedly if room is made for growth.  The tradition must be extended in order to thrive, or even stay alive.  Sometimes that “room” is physical, like a lab or a studio or a theatre or a library.  You know how critical our space needs are just now, and how the new MAK will only begin the process of catching up; I’m proud to say that our faculty has proven flexible and creative about space, and that will be the only way that our needs can be fairly addressed, pending more building on the Allendale campus, for which the College is already actively advocating.  


Sometimes, though, the “room” we most need is the metaphoric common space that allows colleagues to come together where ideas can collide and spark.  In one of my favorite recent instances, your elected Faculty Council has picked the brains of leaders from all over campus.  The first of their resulting initiatives, about which you’ll hear more as fall approaches, will be called “Out of the Box Lunches” that will endeavor to create such a space and propagate the lessons learned from their fact-finding discussions with those entrusted at GVSU to design resources for the future.  And so we affirmed our tradition of faculty governance vitally involved in addressing our problems pragmatically and collegially—and so we will extend it creatively, doubtless in new directions, next year.


There are many more examples of this collaboration, and it’s one of the reasons that this university serves students so well even while it remains 15th—last, and a distant last—in per capita support from the state.  It’s time to lay to rest one tradition today: to the state and especially the Governor I’d like to say, putting partisan concerns aside, it’s time you discovered that we are a phenomenal investment. 


As you may have heard, the state allocates funds in part based on perceived economic benefit to the state, although in practice it would take a particularly creative pretzel maker to define the state’s interest as circuitously as it has been to fit political convenience.  Even in straightforward economic terms, some of our work is very obviously serving the economic benefit of the state; for example, John Constantelos of Political Science was recently awarded a research grant from the Canadian Embassy for his project, "Political Responses to Economic Structural Hypertransformation: A Multilevel Analysis of Business Strategies in Ontario and Michigan."  While Alasdair MacIntyre talked about extending a tradition, he’ll have to step up the level of his game to discuss hypertransforming it!  But while perhaps less obvious, every other aspect of our productivity also serves to make this a more vital place.  It is hard to quantify Patricia Clark’s years as poet laureate; or the impact of the Psychology film series; or the value to Michigan’s middle and high school teachers of the Classics Department’s Summer Latin Program; or Jodee Hunt’s interdisciplinary and intercultural project in Nicaragua; or the Spanish online journal.  But all these and dozens more add materially to the value and fungibility of the GVSU degree; substantively to our students’ experience and learning; and upliftingly to our sense of ourselves as propagators of the liberal arts.  That connects us to a very old tradition: when we see the work of our students—at SSD, say, or at the wonderful exhibition of student photography now in the Performing Arts Center Gallery—we connect with the ancient Greek aim of education, expressed in the phrase gnothi seauton; we help our students know and understand themselves.  In an age when society conceives of higher education in terms of entry level positions in the hot industry du jour, affirming our tradition of liberal education we continue to supply our students with what they need to shape their lives, their professions and their societies.  Let no one forget that CLAS faculty provide—ARE—the liberal arts core of this university.  That’s a tradition that does not, will not change.


There is a rhetorical tradition to uphold today too.  Whenever I talk with you in this capacity, I try to articulate how lucky we are to do what we do together.  That notion has been tested at times this year—as it has always been, and as it will be, inescapably, in the years to come.  But we faced the inevitable challenges of flipping the switch on Banner pre-requisites (on which we insisted because we knew it was in the longer term good of our students), we planned the office moves to what will be better facilities, we developed from what always seems to me a dismal business model a set of documents that truly and usefully capture and begin to address the nature and values of our workload, and we have continued to meet the challenges of an absolutely crucial university accreditation coming in the fall.  It is in that context—not just of soaring achievement but of persistent challenge—that I remind you that we are deeply fortunate to work in a place like this, for two reasons that connect to everything I’ve listed up to now.


First, here, what we do feeds what we are; passion and profession are one.  What you contribute to this enterprise will never be entirely measurable by payroll, although thanks to the hard work of the President, the Provost and the Vice President for Finance, we’re making some progress there.  Yet because of what we do, we can always find a more soul-satisfying payoff in a brilliant sentence in the midst of a deep pile of final exams, or in the student who comes back years later and says, “I only got a B- in your course, but I use what you taught us every day.”  Or it might be in an epiphany working beside your student in the lab, or in that moment in advising hours when it all falls into place, or at a department social event when you learned just how much a thoughtful suggestion or a word of encouragement meant to someone.  For me last fall, it was in a gleaming double-edged line in my teaching evaluation.  My student had written, “You treated us like adults, dammit.”


Second, in the fleeting breath between the end of classes and the onslaught of exams, this is an apt time to recognize all the fabulous people we are proud to work with.  It’s easy to realize looking around this room that we are lucky for our able and ambitious colleagues. And today I especially encourage you to appreciate the wonderful staff members who made it possible for us together to achieve more than you possibly could have done alone.  And in that spirit let me acknowledge the tremendous work of the staff of the College Office on our behalf: Pat Haynes, Monica Johnstone, Pam Kellogg, Cindy Laug, Courtney Sherwood, Heidi Nicholson, Paula Wicklund and today’s party planner extraordinaire, Keesha Walker.


We are, each of us, more of what we are because of all of us.   We are immeasurably smarter, and better, together than we are separately.  The bracing company of these colleagues, making each year's challenges part, a crucial new part, of an old tradition, is what accounts for the brightness of our future, whatever faces us.  If MacIntyre is right, we have added to that brightness--or at least intensified it by affirming and extending our tradition this year.   That tradition and its virtues stretch back to the founding of Grand Valley and the quinquagesimal anniversary we will be celebrating in a year and a half, and long before to the founding of universities; and it stretches forward along the mustering lines of students yet to come, far beyond our time here.  We are lucky to move for a time in such a tradition.  And insofar as we achieve what we can be, to the extent this year shows we can, then those who follow us in the Grand Valley, and CLAS, tradition will count themselves lucky, as we do, for their predecessors.


And thank you all for an extraordinary year in which we renewed and extended—and thereby affirmed—our traditions.

Page last modified July 25, 2017