After the End of the Beginning: The University as a Crucible of Character

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

Grand Valley State University

August 25, 2011



In November of 1942, after a series of defeats that stretched from Dunkirk to Singapore, the British finally defeated a Nazi force, destroying most of Rommel’s army at El Alamein.   Winston Churchill restrained the response of his victory-hungry country, counseling that “this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”  Though Grand Valley has not experienced anything so dramatic as the sustained bombing of London, our last seven years have been a time of finding our way in uncertain and hazardous times, not to mention of explosive institutional growth and vertiginous structural change.   Perhaps, now that the Quincentenary celebration of the University is over, it’s time to examine not only what we have made, but what in the coming years we can make, of our College; to discuss the challenges to our progress; and to think through a concept of what we do here that might enable us, and energize us, to begin again.


If we take stock, we can see how much we have already built together.

  • We govern better.
    • We have instituted a new model of Faculty Governance in CLAS that is effective, productive, forward thinking, widely inclusive, and humane. 
    • We have seen new units and new programs arise from the hard work of the faculty dedicated to them.
  • We are more helpful to our students.
    • We have a dedicated CLAS Academic Advising Center with 4-year curricular plans and major and minor worksheets providing greater clarity for students and easier progress through the curriculum.
    • We’ve had hard conversations, done constructive planning, and made comparisons with our peers, which cumulatively have enabled us to streamline our prerequisites, strengthen our curriculum and assess our effectiveness. 
  • We address resource needs increasingly well.
    • Many units have moved into appropriate space or have had space renovated to better suit their teaching needs.
    • We’ve made progress on more equitable faculty workload, toward 9 teaching credits, meanwhile pushing class size, on average, slightly down. 
    • The tenure track faculty has grown from a low of 402 to 495 today, with 22 searches in the offing this year.
    • Each year our faculty sets new records for grants and our students secure more prestigious national scholarships and fellowships.
    • We run a more sustainable operation.
  • We communicate better, including listening better.
    • The CLAS website started as an online brochure of about 10 pages and is now, thanks to our Director of CLAS Communications, Dr. Monica Johnstone, and a wide variety of linked contributors, a major (and imitated) college resource of 300 pages where we help ourselves to information, give greater transparency to our operations, and celebrate our diverse achievements.
    • Our unit heads receive an informational mailing from the College Office about 40 times each year; the CLAS faculty receives a monthly newsletter 12 times a year.  The College is about to distribute to our various constituencies our 4th annual report. 
    • The College has implemented a strategic plan, an inclusion plan, and a document declaring the standards and criteria for our personnel evaluations.  These have become models for the rest of the university.
    • We are advised by councils, boards, and committees of our faculty, emeriti, alumni, staff, and students, whose suggestions are broadly and recursively shared.
    • We have a CLAS alumni chapter and a lively Facebook presence for CLAS Alumni.
    • Our numbers of Inclusion Advocates and Allies & Advocates are growing, helping to make this a great place to work and learn, for all of our colleagues and students.
  • Our voices are better heard.
    • Our faculty are well represented on elected and appointed committees and taskforces throughout the university.
    • On-campus media feature CLAS faculty and students at a much higher rate than they once did, from the FORUM and the GVSU website to the Lanthorn.
    • Our faculty and students enjoy high levels of representation among everything from the mentorship of McNair scholars to awards for teaching, scholarship, and service.
    • Our artists are increasingly in front of the public in everything from ArtPrize to the GRAM to theatres, schools, camps, and concert halls.
    • From Third Thursday radio interviews with Shelly Irwin to all of the local magazines and television stations, our faculty informs this community on everything from politics to water quality.
  • Some of our most recent achievements are beginning to reap their intended benefits:
  • Thanks to streamlining, curricular bottleneck-clearing, and advising improvements, we are saving students from burdensome debt and frustration.
  • The growing resources put in place by CLAS faculty governance are already helping faculty to even greater success in applications for sabbaticals, tenure and promotion, and curricular changes.
  • The Lab Safety website is now a more comprehensive resource to protect our people and keep us legally compliant.
  • Our lab inventory database has already started to help us to work more sustainably and to avoid accidental duplication of resources.
  • Some impacted programs are discussing enrollment management strategies that address the workload, help students to make wise and suitable choices of major, and acknowledge our foreseeable resources.


So now, we can begin thinking through some intriguing new questions that are entailed in new space, new resources, and new activities.

  • What will be we able to do in 2013 when we have a new library with all its cutting-edge resources for students? How much of it can we begin to implement now? And what will we be able to do when the space needs of other departments are addressed by the cascade of vacated spaces when the new library comes on line?
  • What innovations will be we able to accomplish together as we build the new lab building?  We’ve already achieved better understanding of each other’s needs—a first step toward well designed synergies.
  • Agreements we’ve put in place with GRCC and medical schools will increasingly mean success for transfer students and those seeking admission to competitive programs that is even better than they enjoy today. When that word gets around, what sort of students will we attract? How high can our alumni go?
  • When the work of the Media Services Taskforce has helped us to use existing resources better and to quantify the need for a more permanent addressing of our video needs—what might we be able to accomplish?
  • When those who want to seek grants have access to the supportive critiques of quality circles and our expanded and strengthened reputation improves the chances of those seeking grants—how will we make education here at GVSU better for our students with the resources these grants will bring?
  • What should we decide to do—and to refrain from doing—with respect to teaching in the digital environment?
  • Now that our large group of assistant professors have the clarity of knowing our standards as they approach tenure--and become a growing contingent of associate professors—what might we set as our goals then?

Hence, ‘the end of the beginning.’  In retrospect it all didn’t take an ”UberDean” to accomplish.  We’ve wound up with a college with a solid and effective foundation through our work together.  So far the story of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has been about setting CLAS up for success, getting the programs and processes in place, helping people to grasp all the opportunities available in the University and inherent in their professions, bringing together groups to advise us and keep us in touch with everything from grant opportunities to regulatory requirements.  At the margins this work is never definitively done.  But the end of every beginning requires finding a new passage forward; it’s now time for us to ask, what should be our hopes for the next five to seven years? 


We’re probably all aware that because of the condition of the state, we must meet new challenges.  But I wonder if we all know their material dimensions.  This year marks the state’s largest single cut to higher education in history: in 2011-12, the state will provide no more than 14% of our general fund.  In only the last five years, the state has cut almost a third of its overall higher education budget.  Among the 50 states, Michigan now ranks 48th in support for its system of public universities; Grand Valley was in the lowest 5% of all public universities—before this year’s cuts in Michigan’s unfathomable race to the bottom.    Of course, asking this degree of sacrifice from college students is both unfair and unwise; college graduates use less government, they are in jail less, use fewer social services, and pay more taxes.  It’s heartening to know that, with aid and scholarships, the average student at GVSU pays only about 40% of the “sticker price”; but it’s sobering to know that, for the lower division student, that sticker price this fall will be $9,716, and for upper division students, 55 credits and above, the tuition is $10,200. 


So it must be our aspiration to provide nothing less than the best undergraduate liberal education in the state.  We must teach in a way that underlines how higher education is both an individual and a public good.  We know college graduates can expect to make a million and a half or more dollars than non-graduates during their working life—besides having access to vocations that engage them deeply.  But the University, or at least our University, is not just a store where individuals pay to take things down off random shelves to gain personal advantage.  It is a crucible of character within which minds are changed and people are shaped to the good of the larger communities and professions to which they belong.  We must say, with our words and with our actions, that higher education has both a profoundly personal and a measurable public benefit.


I realize it can be hard to dream about the College’s future at the point in the semester when you may be thinking about tweaks to your syllabus you need to accomplish before Monday.  But allow the picture to form in your mind: what might CLAS come to be between now and when we convene like this in the fall of 2016?  Teasing out threads from unit strategic plans and unit head goal statements, here’s what I see:


In five years, the CLAS I’d like to work in will have some things it does not yet have.

  • We will develop College “research clusters” (in areas such as water, health, urban concerns of Grand Rapids) that will permit more joint grant work and that may set the scene for team teaching.
  • We will enhance the professional development of APs and COTs.  These colleagues are our logistical backbone and we need to keep them strong.
  • We will see higher rates of participation in programs that harness the strengths of the College such as the Teaching Roundtables in November, Sabbatical Showcase in spring and the CLAS Faculty Research Colloquium.  If you haven’t been to a colloquium lately, you owe it to yourself to find a couple hours to be energized by your colleagues’ work and to meet some people outside of your own department.  You’ll always come out with a new idea, and perhaps someday with a collaboration.
  • We will be better at capturing your new ideas.  Part of this will be implementing this year an open-topic lunch with the Deans for faculty and staff.
  • As a rhetorician, this one is dear to my heart: one complaint I’ve consistently heard about our otherwise increasingly well qualified students is that they do not know how to construct arguments.  Myself, I think this is partly because geometry is no longer required in their high school.  This may be a national problem; the authors of Academically Adrift contend that as many as a third of college graduates showed no improvement in critical thinking skills.[1]  Surely there are homogenizing cultural influences that make it more difficult to discern and address different audiences.  But whatever the cause, we will begin investigating approaches that might help address the problem our students have constructing arguments.
  • We will build our emotional capital.  We must remember that along with the bricks and sticks, we build on excellent teaching and invigorating scholarly and creative work.  A great university is a place where, as my teacher Frank O’Malley said, there is “human nerve in the mortar; there’s blood in the bricks.”  We will have more of the magic that you engendered last year through LipDubs and Homerathons and Bard to Go and volcanoes at Homecoming and dance flash mobs at the GRAM and marching band camp and candlelight honor society inductions.  Universities are—this university is—a special place; we will find new ways to mark and increase and prosper that specialness.
  • We will assert ourselves as the heart of this university.  We are the very core—for those whose morning wouldn’t be complete without a French pun, I will also say the “Coeur”—the heart of liberal education here.  We are its torchbearers; we need always to be among its leaders.


As you know, there is an industry dedicated to defining and creating metaphors for leadership.  I’ll not tell you how to swim with sharks or get to “yes” or embrace the fifth discipline or take the 21 steps to whatever.  I’d rather suggest a more elemental idea—an idea that was similarly put by two rather different people.  The first is Pulitzer winning columnist Walter Lippmann who said, "the final test of a leader is that he leaves behind him in other men, the conviction and the will to carry on."   That needs an update, of course, because we’ve all been shaped by female leaders, too.  The other is by Jack Welch (a Chemical Engineering PhD, former CEO of GE, and syndicated columnist) who said, "Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others."

And as to the success that’s about growing others: in the future version of CLAS that we will build, I definitely want to see more than just the endless kaleidoscope of strategic plan cycle upon strategic plan cycle, “succession planning” without substantive succession. I want us all to know that we’ve had a hand in not only shaping the students into leaders, but also helping our colleagues to reach their potential and the basic human and physical infrastructure of this University. This is an essential part of what must come after the end of the beginning.

In that context, perhaps I might be permitted two personal comments.  First, you may have heard that I’ll be taking over as the Executive Director of the Rhetoric Society of America.  In answer to some questions, this does not entail leaving the University or the Deanship.  In the proud tradition of GVSU, I will simply multitask—and I hope to bring back from places like the conferences of the American Council of Learned Societies information that might be useful across our disciplines.  Second, my thanks to everyone who participated in my four-year review.  I learned from your observations, and already have some plans to address the well-placed critiques you offered, which always seemed imbued with two messages: an excellence-hungry sense that we damn sure have more work to do, so let’s get on with it; but a fundamentally friendly tone that we’re all in this together.  Thank you, for both messages.  For the former, it’s true, none of us can be too sure of our expiration date, but we know our years with this sweet responsibility are finite; so if you have a dream, seize this day, make this year a turning point.  For the latter, I’m so proud to work with you; it’s a joy, for a while longer anyway, to be your dean.

So how do we think about our future? In a provocative article in the American Scholar[2]  this summer, essayist and critic William Deresiewicz argued for the importance of solitude for leadership.  He wanted people to take some time to think and not to confuse leadership with CV-building or multitasking.  He argues that those things may help temporarily to work one’s way up the bureaucracy, but they won’t engender moral courage or the sort of ideas we are likely to change and prosper from.

I found myself wishing he’d taken his argument even further.  It seems to me that in a globalized hyper-paced world, even pretty large institutions can actually prove quite fragile; think about GM, Lehman Brothers, My Space, or very nearly this summer, the full faith and credit of the United States.  Finding “go-along, get-along” “manage up” types to be the leaders is actually very risky for organizations—including universities, colleges, and departments.  It is imperative, if you want the satisfaction and productivity of authentic and effective leadership to become a person of courage (among other virtues) who can think and solve problems.  Just as there is a personal imperative to become this sort of person as our careers flower, there is a corresponding institutional imperative to find and foster such leader among us.  An organization promotes “go-along” types at its own peril – in fact, at ever more peril as the pace of change accelerates.  In CLAS, we have many of the nimble and courageous thinkers Deresiewicz envisions.  In the next five years, we must develop and empower more.

As I read over the draft of this year’s CLAS annual report about teaching, which you’ll see in September, it struck me that our faculty, when talking about their teaching, are at their most passionate—and their most leaderly.  They hold views that cheerfully contradict one another on things like the value of quizzes and whether or not it is beneficial to provide lecture notes to students.  And then, they independently voice a similar view, over and over, that each faculty member must find the pedagogy that suits her or him—AND, notwithstanding success, each of us must keep searching and keep changing as our fields develop and the generations of students advance.  We too must be changed   in the crucible of the University.


But this is not where I return to Churchill to say “I have nothing to offer you but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”  You already know there’s no way to avoid the toil and sweat, although we will do our best to limit the blood and tears.  But as the faculty and staff of CLAS, we have much to be grateful for.  Some of it is material.  Where other schools have closed programs, our University has (modest) raises.  Where other places have had to cut personnel, our college alone has 22 searches.  Still we kept our tuition 10th of the state’s 15 publics, with no hocus pocus accounting or sly attempts to charge our students twice.  Meanwhile, we are building a library for the next century, and already planning further classroom, studio and lab facilities—which, there can be no denying, we need. 

All that is at the material level, and it’s not negligible; but even more substantially, I hope we never forget how lucky we are to do what we do.  We have been given the profound and future-shaping trust of working with an unquenchable supply of bright young people.   We have the professional freedom of pursuing questions we think the most interesting and valuable to ask, of defining projects we will undertake and be judged by, of pursuing the knowledge we think most worth having.   What I really have to give you, for this year and our time together here at Grand Valley, is just a reminder: with all these privileges comes a responsibility, bearing on each of us, to take the beginning made, in their time, by those who came before us, and do, in our time, something magnificent with it—something innovative, useful, regenerative—to affirm the tradition in which we are privileged to stand  by changing and extending it;   to step into the crucible and emerge a little changed ourselves.  This is our time to begin again.





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