"Focusing a Shared Vision: The State (and Prospects) of the College"

(A speech given by Dean Fred Antczak to the faculty and staff of the
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences on August 26, 2004)

Thank you Provost Davis. And let's begin by offering special thanks to two people especially responsible for today's festivities, and the feast that follows: Associate Dean Julianne Vanden Wyngaard, and my amazing secretary, the undeterrable Cindy Laug. 

It's a privilege for me to convene this first meeting of the faculty and staff of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Grand Valley State University.   Our opening meeting will provide me each year with the opportunity to report to you on the state of the College and to identify some of the issues that shape its prospects.  As I thought about it this year, one verse of the poet John Masefield kept coming to mind:

"There are few earthly things more beautiful than a university," he wrote, "a place where those who hate ignorance may strive to know, where those who perceive truth may strive to make others see." 

We don't know exactly when Masefield wrote those words, but they resonate especially vibrantly at this time of year, when the campus is filled again with our students, and the whole grand cycle begins again, recharged by their energy, and by our realization--however momentary before the onslaught of the semester--of how privileged we are to have this calling, and how privileged we are again to have an opportunity to fulfill it. 

This year, however, carries a special excitement.  This year, the prime fact about the state of our College is that we ARE one College.  This morning, I want to explore what this means, first by doing a little 'Big Picture' reflection on the ways in which the reorganization of more than 400 faculty and 17,000 undergraduates into CLAS can open new doors in the education we offer our students and still engage in ourselves; and second, by suggesting a few ways this reorganization sets an agenda of renewal and rededication for us this year and beyond.  Then I want to conclude with an inspiring thought from one of our colleagues, Ed Aboufadel--with his indulgence, let's call this an Aboufadelian valedictory.  That's surely something to look forward to.    But first let's consider of how this is a year of

Opening New Doors

In an era of increasingly far-reaching and accelerating change, we can take pride in the value of education in the liberal arts and sciences for many reasons--because it constitutes the core of the free inquiry, the creativity, and the discovery and dissemination of new knowledge that are the mission of the university; because it teaches skills and attitudes that will enable our students to adapt to the 5, or 8, or 17 career changes they will face over their working lives; because it both grounds the critical habits of mind, and energizes the participatory habits of the heart that make for good citizens.

We are proud to work in a public university--and as such, of course we have public responsibilities.  But unlike so many other institutions, our public responsibility is not understood here (as, frankly, it is in many other places) to be some simple flatfooted version of 'work force development.'  As President Murray recently wrote, 

"[e]conomic and cultural vitality are both rooted in our creativity, our capacity to think, our desire to reach outside our own narrow experience to different groups and cultures, our skill in positively critiquing the weaknesses of the established ways things have always been done, and our willingness to work hard for many hours to achieve excellence". 

That's us the President is talking about.  Through our teaching and scholarship and service and outreach, we exist to enrich and enliven our community, region, state and society. 

By creating the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the University has underlined this distinct and heartening message: that the work of each of us, staff and faculty, whether we set up studios, insure safety in labs, whether we learn and teach about the genetics of fruit flies, the vagaries of voter behavior or the enduring causes of ancient and modern war in the Middle East, whether we probe the deep and glorious order--AND as we have more recently learned, the CHAOS of mathematics or the freedom and discipline of dance, whatever our work, it has broad social value and interconnection.

I must tell you, I had the joy of seeing that interconnection spark last Thursday evening, when the College hosted a dinner for new faculty and their families, with their department chairs in tow.  Altogether there were about 100 of us, and let me say that though most were new to Grand Valley and each other, our most recent colleagues were neither timid nor territorial in engaging one another.  Serendipitously, a scholar who had recently been learning new statistical processes of longitudinal analysis sat with a scholar who had compiled a massive bank of data about simian behavior over time.  LIGHT BULBS came on over that table, and a door opened to collaboration that no one could have foreseen.  At another table, a scientist who uses Geographic Information Systems to work with land and water was having a similarly illuminating conversation with a social scientist who uses GIS to work with populations and migration.  The conversations were so animated, we hardly needed the artificial lighting of the banquet room, because lightning seemed to be striking in every corner.  What we--faculty AND staff--will discover as we inhabit and explore all the new dimensions of our College, is that our work is valued in a diversity of ways we never knew, and new light can be shed on it, new engagements can be made with it from a variety of surprising angles.  In truth, doors of collaboration and mutual education are always a little ajar, and Grand Valley faculty have often taken advantage of them.  But now our common enterprise gives us new opportunities for a richer intellectual life simply by working together. 

So I am personally very grateful for the opportunity to join the faculty of CLAS at Grand Valley at this moment, as we set out together on what will be an extraordinary new adventure in what is already an extraordinary institutional story.  The torch IS being passed, to coin a phrase.  It's our time, our communal responsibility to carry the narrative forward into new, and changing, and in some ways very different educational contexts.  But its well to begin taking up that responsibility by recognizing that new possibilities grow from what has been planted and cultivated before.  So on behalf of the many staff, faculty and students who benefited from their devoted work, I want to thank publicly Deans Jon Jellema, Erica King and Doug Kindschi for their many contributions, and I am SO pleased that all three will continue to contribute to CLAS by their service, scholarship and teaching. 

I also want to thank publicly the senior faculty and the emeriti who have been here and helped the University grow towards 23,000 students, colleagues who came to Grand Valley when it was an institution of eight thousand students, four thousand, even fewer.  Its our collective obligation to build on your achievement.  And if we make new structures and take new directions, it will not be a rejection of the work that's come before.  Indeed, the ONLY way we can be true to the visionary legacy we inherit is to extend it, change it, and go through whatever doors of possibility open to us in our time.  We stand in--or rather, we need to keep moving with--a lively tradition of educational innovation.  But if that's true, then how does that help form an agenda for this year and beyond?  I want to present this Agenda of Renewal and Rededication as a series of  Six Conversations.

My intellectual discipline is rhetoric, and so I am disposed to see things not just in terms of specific goals and processes, but rather in terms of discourses--or, if you prefer, conversations.  Conversations pull people in and take them along, are changed by their input and interchange, and wind up incalculably further than specific points of a strategic plan can foresee.  That is to say, good conversations can be forms of what the political philosopher Hannah Arendt defined as human 'action.' So let me talk about where the action is--six conversations that will take us together towards a horizon of still brighter possibilities. 

First, we need to talk together about how we are to govern ourselves.  We are a giant and complex operation with significant responsibilities to our students, to our colleagues, and to the public for the resources they have invested in us.  So we will be facing a range of hard and important decisions: decisions about curriculum, about faculty promotion, welfare and continuing development, about allocating scarce resources, not so as to create or sustain ideal situations for a few, but so as to spread the best overall learning environment we can possibly manage across our increasing numbers of students and faculty.  Such decisions, I believe, are made best with the full and systematic engagement of faculty.  Accordingly I've appointed a Task Force for CLAS Faculty Governance, and given it an ambitious charge: to draft structures of governance and consultation, of curricular review and personnel review;    then, to draw broadly on the advice of faculty for revision;    and finally to bring a revised plan to the CLAS faculty and to the University Senate, in time I hope to hold elections next spring.  This short calendar is a tall order, but Im very pleased that we have such able colleagues who are willing to take it on.  The Task Force consists of Jan Brashler, Anthropology; John Bender, Chemistry; Robert Henderson, Psychology; Karen Novotny, Mathematics; Diane Rayor, Classics; Ed Wong-Ligda, Art & Design; Rob Franciosi, Vice President of the UAS and our colleague in English; and our able associate deans Julianne Vanden Wyngaard, Gary Stark and Neal Rogness.  I hope this committee engages you, at some point, in this conversation, and when it does, I hope you talk back to them. 

Conversation two will have less of a specific time frame and end point.  We must talk together about how to take curricular and scholarly advantage of the broad new range of our interdisciplinarity.  Here again is a lesson we try to teach our students that we must be willing to apply to ourselves: we have MUCH to learn from each other's practices, even from others who seem very different.  Many kinds of interconnections are possible, and the advantages of interdisciplinarity will turn out to be--over time, and in a hundred quiet ways--the greatest benefit of reorganization.  Within this conversation we need to have a rigorous examination of both general education and major level courses.  We especially need to look at:

* the General Education themes and how to support them;

* again in General Education at the upper division writing requirement and whether it might be better reoriented towards the roles that educated people can and should play as citizens; that is, not just writing IN the disciplines, but writing as citizens FROM the disciplines, out into the world;

* how upper division classes can incorporate more ambitious inquiry-based and problem-based learning;

* at how to afford every student who wants it an experience in student research, and at how to convince more students to want such an experience.

Over the course of this year we will begin more conversations that importantly impact on curriculum and how we can deliver it: beginning this fall, we will undertake in every department a Course Capacity Inventory, to determine the ideal and maximum number of students appropriate for each course, given its pedagogy.  This will enable us to fit courses into the right classrooms and teaching spaces, and in some cases grounding much more persuasively the justification for more faculty..  But if we become more watchful about the quantity of our teaching, we must also become more thoughtful about its quality, and how to evaluate that quality across a range of pedagogies.  Later in this academic year, we'll launch a fourth conversation with a Course Evaluation Task Force, convened to examine the VERY different kinds of course and teaching evaluation that the three different divisions employed.  If we are an institution focused on undergraduate teaching, and if teaching is to be duly influential in mentoring, in tenure and promotion, and in salary decisions, we must have credible measures for evaluating teaching, involving student views where they are appropriate, and peer reviews where ONLY THEY can speak with authority.  Among the questions we need to find collegial ways to pursue are these two: are we asking enough of our students? Are we challenging them enough?

The activity of the Course Capacity Inventory and Course Evaluation Task Force will begin a fifth and larger conversation about how to coordinate the various kinds of planning and evaluation we will be doing: how can we develop a College Strategic Plan that contributes to the University's mission, goals, and values?  How can your department similarly support, while it helps to inform, the College's priorities?  How can this dimension of planning integrate with departmental self-studies and reviews? How can individuals plan their particular year's responsibilities so as to support the department's mission, goals, values? How can these priorities be coordinated with mentoring, professional development, evaluation and assignment of responsibilities? Such discussion will naturally lead to the topic that at Grand Valley has been called   'workload' (personally, I find that an oddly loaded word to talk about sharing collegial responsibilities, carrying its own biases in a way worth examining).  The Provost has promised to lead such a conversation this year, but I want to find a way to engage it in our College, not in the bean-counting language of 'accountability' that has permeated the discourse of higher education, but in terms of our responsibility to each other and to our students.   I DO expect this to be a lively conversation, but just as an opening, let me offer this much: I already see inequities across the College that we must work within our resources to redress in the near future.  One kind of inequity is that Science and Math has borne an inequitable burden.  But a deeper kind of inequity is that we have thought about distributing responsibilities with an across-the-board approach, insufficiently inflected by individual interests, future ambitions and past performance, much less by the totality of community needs.  We can do better.

Finally if we are to enjoy the benefits of our new interconnectedness, we must pursue a sixth conversation: how are we to open up collegiality in our new College, not just among faculty of different disciplines but among faculty and staff, whose work and whose excellence is so essential?  That's a question I hope we ask in a variety of contexts.  But there are two contexts where I think we must make special efforts.

First: we must make diversity, all sorts of diversity, a central priority of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.  The search for shards of the truth is made more complete if we widen the variety our perspectives, and actually engage and compare them.   Intellectual diversity is fueled by cultural and social diversity, if we see that diversity not just as a curiosity to be tolerated but a resource to be plumbed and relished. To take a longer view, the world for which we prepare our students will require them--even if they work and live their entire lives in west Michigan--to work productively with people from cultures around the world, people of every creed, race, class, range of physical abilities, sexual identities and lifestyle, and every scholarly perspective.  Let's say it plain from the start: in order to accomplish this College's distinctive goals: we need to welcome difference, of every sort.  And Faculty have a special duty to model that welcome.

Now, I don't want us simply to have a warm and fuzzy attitude about diversity, I want us to make demonstrable progress on it.  But I think our measures aren't yet adequate to track that progress.  One yardstick of measuring diversity in higher education has been the recruitment of diverse students, faculty and staff.  Grand Valley has a good record in this, although we clearly have some distance to go.  But let me suggest a different axis of assessment for CLAS: in addition to recruiting diversely, let us become the kind of College which retains faculty and staff, keeps them because people of all sorts find they prosper professionally and personally here.  Let us, today, accept retention of both faculty and staff as another index of our progress on diversity.  To work towards this goal means of course that we need to know more about why people leave.  I ask departments that have not been keeping such data to begin developing their own exit interview systems, and I offer to work with you toward that end.

And let's go that commitment to diversity one better, and accept responsibility for the counterpart in student life: let's work not just to raise the percentage of diverse students we recruit, but to teach and foster them so that a growing percentage  GRADUATE.  How's that for an indicator of real improvement?

The other application of 'diversity' is respect for everyone who works here, faculty and staff.  We need to become the kind of College where the staff--whose essential work helps set professors up in prepared labs, or with operational cameras or safe kilns or unfrozen computers--are fully appreciated.   One way to respect people is to consult with them.  This fall I will initiate a Dean's Staff Advisory Committee to do exactly that.

We will periodically report to the College about our progress on these six tasks--through unit heads, who are an indispensable part of College leadership; and through the CLAS Web page, which we will launch Monday, the first day of classes.  Special kudos go to Associate Dean Rogness, who's taken the lead in design, and our student Web-slinger Andy Brookhouse.   We'll be asking you for your critiques and suggestions once it's up.  We also ask for your news and events.  It would be wonderful for interdisciplinarity if the topics, dates and locations of faculty colloquia could be advertised on the College site. 

As we have these conversations, I hope we never forget how lucky we are to do what we do.  We have the privilege to work with an unquenchable supply of bright young people.   We have the luxury of pursuing questions we wish to ask, defining projects we will undertake and be judged by, pursuing the knowledge we think most worth having.  We work so hard that sometimes we may not feel the joy and pride we SHOULD in that calling.  I'm someone who's done a few other very different things in my laboring life--as a first-generation-to-College-kid and the son of a firefighter I've taken some odd jobs, but I wonder if I'm the only person in this room who's had to kill a rat with a shovel as a normal part of their job.  With that background, let me say that that it's difficult to find a vocation SO rewarding that comes with SUCH freedom.  For our time here at Grand Valley, we have been given a truly remarkable trust, and an enormous responsibility to do something magnificent with it.

 But let me put that in the valedictory words of our Mathematics colleague Ed Aboufadel. Shortly after I was named Dean, Professor Aboufadel wrote me as follows: "Departments and students in what is to be CLAS have been responsible for such events as the Shakespeare Festival and Arab World Night, and displays such as the Art and Photography Senior Theses, the Student Scholarship Days, the Geography Department's 'Water in Chicago,' and more."

 We all have reason to share Ed's sense that the array of concerns and expertises now brought together in CLAS is worth celebrating.  Ed's right, for reasons we'll talk more about this year--because

  • disciplines in the liberal arts and sciences offer an education aimed not just at an entry-level job, but for a lifetime of change; and because
  • that education focuses on objects, questions and commitments   engagement with which makes life more worth living.

If there are few earthly things more beautiful than a University, there are few University things as beautiful, as brimming with potential, and none with brighter prospects, than our College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.  Lets begin TODAY envisioning it, focusing our vision and building it together. 

Page last modified March 9, 2018