Keeping Our Promises, Fulfilling Our Promise

Keeping Our Promises, Fulfilling Our Promise: What’s Smart, What’s Right, and a Few Synecdoches

Fall 2008

Frederick J. Antczak, Dean

College of Liberal Arts & Sciences
Grand Valley State University



Happy new year!  Again the academic cycle comes around and we find ourselves on the verge of starting something new and distinctive, memories of which we might carry all our lives.  A special welcome to our new faculty.  We’re very glad to have you, each of you, join our community.


Today I’m going to be talking about some of the turmoil and triumph the University has witnessed over the summer, the promises we must keep from strategic planning and in accreditation, and the larger challenges we must face if we’re to fulfill our promise individually and as a university.  But first, I can start with unalloyed good news—and credit where credit is due.

In previous years, I’ve had to follow my welcome with a selection like the speech of Shakespeare’s Henry V, We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.  At those moments, girding for battle, our odds of surmounting budget cuts and the rising tide of student numbers with an undersized faculty in tight facilities seemed to call for that sort of exhortation.  Annually—and still today—we have been a distant last in state appropriations per student.  It was Samuel Butler, probably not commenting directly on Michigan, who said, “Man is the only animal that laughs, and has a state legislature.”  Sometimes it has been difficult to laugh.


In the past, we scrimped on space and especially faculty.  But look around you; while recognizing that not every problem has been solved, you can begin to feel a turn in the tide.  This year, we’ve brought to GVSU 43 excellent new colleagues; because departments and the College were able to refer to our strategic plans for support, we have 44 faculty searches to perform for fall 09.  New space and renewed space are making life quite a bit more manageable, for both direct and indirect beneficiaries.  I want you all to know, we aren’t done.  I’m already in meetings about future building projects.  Communications and the performing arts are still in need.  But outside of those units, what we see this fall is how, when one group of faculty moves into needed facilities, others enjoy a cascade of benefit from either a space they vacated or just by moving up the priority list.  This rising tide really does float many boats, as will the tide that brings the new library.   I believe that project will be funded, one way or another, this year.


In connection with new buildings, I wanted you all to know that this summer, Associate Dean Jann Joseph’s eagle eye spied a very unusual grant.  As is almost unheard of in the grant world, this one funds the construction of a science building.  And this is the part in the story when I almost want to call Julianne back for the theme music from The Dirty Dozen.   With the deadline only nine days away, CLAS assembled a team that included Jann, James Moyer (the Associate Vice President in Facilities & Planning), Bob Smart (the new Director of the Center for Scholarly and Creative Excellence and our colleague in Chemistry), Christine Chamberlain (of the Grants Office) and Monica Johnstone (our Director of Communication for CLAS), and they worked day and often night to get it done.  We won’t know until October if we’ve been successful in attracting the largest grant in GVSU history, but no matter the outcome, we now have a document making the case for such a facility that can be used to lobby in Lansing or to interest donors.


An aside about Monica: it’s at least monthly that I hear from a faculty member or unit head that hiring Dr. Johnstone was one of the best things we’ve done—and I agree.  She is a part of a larger vision of hiring key staff to free faculty to do what faculty do best, and to do some things we haven’t really done before.  Having her doctorate in rhetoric, Monica will perhaps forgive me for making her a synecdoche.  She represents what I think everyone in our college office believes: that the CLAS Office is a place in service to our students and our faculty.  I am very proud of the ethos of service in our office, and I have to tell you that it seems a characteristic of our staff across CLAS.  To every COT and AP in our College, THANK YOU for all you do; and thanks in advance for all you will do in this exciting new year.


But part of what will make it an exciting year will also make it challenging.  We have spent the better part of three year making promises: in our strategic plans, our assessment plans, our workload plans, we’ve made promises about our future.  Now, we have to commit to keeping them.


When our President and Provost proposed and the Trustees signed off on more realistic tuition, they were acknowledging that we need more faculty to fulfill the University’s promises about desired class sizes and time to graduation.  To become what we long said GVSU would be, we just couldn’t be last in appropriations and tuition anymore.  Now, after all the hue and cry…we’re second-last. 


And now we have partner benefits distributed equally.  If you’ve been reading the press, you’ve heard the criticism, some of it shrill and personal, that Tom and Gayle have taken for this.  Now, there are some instrumental arguments to be made for certain audiences about extending our benefits.  For example, today, less than 50% of American households are led by a wife and a husband; we simply cannot bring the best people in their fields to Grand Valley by drawing on less than 50% of the population.  For another example, 12 of the 15 state institutions have, or will have, these benefits; we cannot be expected to compete with them while they have this advantage—and while the state persists in keeping us millions of dollars behind—by my count about $18M, or well over 200 faculty lines behind—our request merely to tie for last place in appropriations.  From these examples we can conclude that what our leaders did was the smart thing to do.  But more importantly, it was the right thing to do.  Every year, I talk with you about how we should be grateful for the opportunity to work where we do, with the inexhaustible supply of interesting people surrounding us as we do significant and meaningful work.  But even in such places, there is often, if not overtly bad leadership, then leadership that lets inertia pull them back from doing the right thing.  We should be proud to work at a place led by people who have the courage to do what’s right.


Let’s not too quickly leave that point about the faculty salary increase either.   Better equity has been achieved through both the faculty raise and Provost Davis’s willingness to make adjustments where the argument could be made and justified with respect to benchmarks in your field, some of which went back to the 2005 Course Capacity Inventory.  I am grateful that she heard our justifications, and CLAS now has a much better compensated faculty.  The leadership kept their promises and has seen to it that we have done well even in these challenging financial times.  Again, smart;    but again, as I suspect you will agree, the right thing to do.  And maybe that’s an example to learn from.


Let me say, though, that if you’re like me, the public arguments make you want to argue back.  I understand that.  I hear you.  I have been known to bark back myself.  But please remember that many of these arguments are made by people who never attended college, who don’t know how expensive it is for us to be as technology-heavy and personnel-dependent as we are, and as any good university today must be.  When you hear such arguments, or even what sounds like attacks, I encourage you first to listen, remembering that even many of those of our fellow citizens who have not lost their homes (Michigan is near the top in foreclosure rate) or their jobs (Michigan is nearly the worst of the states in unemployment) are struggling to keep up with spiraling costs in food and energy, with no end in sight.  Some of them are simply frightened, and especially if they have a couple of students in school, we’ve added to their unease.  And if you remember how few Michiganders have college degrees, it’s clear that many of them don’t have a basis for understanding us.  So when you encounter the criticisms, I ask you, first, to listen. 


Then if you answer, I’d ask you to do it out of confidence: NOT defensively, but out of the knowledge that we are rising in quality, and clearly recognized in that ascent by everyone from prospective students to other universities that have begun taking us as a model.  More and more excellent students think we are worth it—and they are investing not just tuition, but four irreplaceable years of their lives.  We have a great and compelling story to tell. 


Many people have been working very hard to get that story told in a variety of contexts, and now it falls to us to do so.  Our most immediate task is to represent ourselves fully and accurately to the North Central Accreditation team that will be on campus October 13-15.  Conveying our message will involve various approaches, and I’m pleased to announce an initiative on our behalf.  Shortly after Labor Day I’ll be releasing a four-year report on the College—CLAS’s first Quadrennial Report--covering the period since the inception of the College.  Each of you, as well as NCA and a good number of our alumni and friends as we begin our capital campaign, will receive a copy.  I look forward to the conversations it starts.


Moreover this summer we supplied to the Accreditation team more than 1,700 files to tell them about us.  I want to thank you: many of you helped us a great deal in assembling all that information and helping to tell our story, and I’m very appreciative.  We’ve also been preparing our websites so that they will help us to display clearly and accessibly what it is we do.  It is a strategic goal for the university to "effectively present its image and advance its reputation."  At this stage of our development as a university, we need to let our light shine.  So I expect every unit head and director to be on campus and available during the visit October 13-15, and I'd like any faculty member who can to make herself or himself available too. 


After accreditation, we will apply our ingenuity and resources to help keep the promises detailed in your departmental strategic plans.  One promise involved the approximately 125 new tenure track faculty lines that we've filled since CLAS’s inception on July 1, 2004.  If we have our usual “yield” on this year’s searches (about 85% of our searches succeed), then by next fall’s opening meeting more than 1/3 of the faculty of CLAS will have been hired during my deanship.  It’s clear that the most important things to happen to CLAS during my time won’t be buildings or donations, though we’ll continue working hard for more of both.  It will be you—who you are and who you will have become. 


One of the virtues of our vocation, the adventure of being a professor, is that we are continually finding out what we can be. That means, equally for brand-new, freshly unpacked faculty and for distinguished professors in sight of retirement, not just finishing work on plans already made, but exploring new territory that we will inhabit and make our own.  We are explorers, explorers of our own lives and of our students’ possibilities, explorers with risk, adventure and discovery ahead—ahead this very year if we are open to it—and no amount of planning should ever constrain that.


To encourage that adventure, to fulfill our individual promise, the College and departments must continue to emphasize professional development.  We’ve made real strides in the development dollars available to you, but I’m conscious that their value is being whittled back by higher airfares and costs.  So through our CLAS Fund for Excellence, grants, partnerships and other means, I’m committed to making professional development a continuing reality for all of you, a tangible support of the working life of every faculty member.  Because as I look out at you, there is only one thing I cannot see, and that is any limit to your potential. 


Take the examples of, say, Steve Mattox, recently returned from teaching teachers in The Galapagos. Karen Libman took seven students and a couple colleagues to Shanghai (and I believe she brought all of them back).  Edwin Joseph was the first faculty member to summit the highest roof on the new Mackinac Hall in order to connect the powerful new GIS lab antenna.  Laurie Witucki made the WISE dorm thrive, and Mark Richards is doing the same for the pre-law dorm.  Rod Morgan has involved student researchers in tests of a new antibiotic that brought us a big grant.  Polly Diven is helping the International Relations program grow at unprecedented rates.  Jim Penn took students to the heart of the Amazon rain forest and tweaked the tail of an unsuspecting anaconda.  Stretching our horizons, Mark Staves’ research might just make it easier for us to go to Mars.   Back on Earth, a variety of you cast your light on the recesses of our minds or our cultures or our institutions.  Gary Stark took our students to Poland and made strong new connections for us there.  And, especially in our programs in the arts and humanities, many of you, like Ming and Mark and our terrific new chair of Art Jinny Jenkins, are enriching the experience of living this life and adding to it meaning and beauty.  William Faulkner in his Nobel lecture in 1950 described this work better than I can “…to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before.”


And, importantly, all of you are finding more ways of directly involving our students in your scholarship.  Our continued focus will be on undergraduate education of startling excellence, at the heart of the University and the center of the liberal education at Grand Valley.  The University depends on us fulfilling this promise to the students.  And here’s where some challenges come in.


Part of our excellence in undergraduate education must be instantiated in a vital, current, cutting edge curriculum.   That involves updating the courses and majors we have, focusing what will always be scarce resources on targeted new growth even when that means pruning back elsewhere.  This leads to special challenges for this year: to the group working on the pharmacology proposal, and the team bringing forward a cultural competency certificate, I challenge you to bring those efforts to successful conclusions this year.  To everyone working on new curriculum, I say, when it comes to offering the best education possible, the best time to begin is RIGHT NOW.


But there is another way that CLAS can lead this year.  For all the many ways we are an excellent university, our BA and BS graduation rates are very low: we only graduate 23.8% of our undergrads in four years.  There are many reasons that our students don't graduate in four years: double majors in an age of multiple credentials; internships and co-ops; sometimes, study abroad.  There are also many reasons we can't impact directly, like the choice to work many hours a week—although I was surprised to learn this summer that our students work on average slightly less than the reported national average.  And of course we graduate many students who intend to be grade school and high school teachers; at Grand Valley, that delays graduation to at least a fifth year in most cases. 


But Grand Valley is now too good a school to give in to old inertias and be satisfied with old excuses, some of which may no longer describe the students we’re admitting so accurately.  We are not the only comprehensive university to face just these conditions, and they face them with less well qualified students; the gap widens almost every year.  Yet GVSU's graduation rate lags universities that simply aren’t as good as we are.  We ought to feel uncomfortable about that. 



So here is my challenge: to lift the 4-year graduation rate in your departmental major from wherever it is by 10% between now and the next quadrennial report in 2012.  I am asking unit heads to make this a topic for your faculty meetings.  I ask our Faculty Council and perhaps other affected committees to consider taking part in the conversation too.  What are the roadblocks and pinch-points students encounter?  How can we use the new CLAS Academic Advising Center to optimal advantage?  How can we refine faculty advising?  How might we give our majors a stronger sense of belonging to a community, an intellectual community that cares about their efforts and their success? What are the best practices on campus, and in your field nationally?


We CAN raise the 4 year graduation rate in CLAS to 33% by 2012.  Our students, better and better every year, can attain this goal if we consistently ask them to reach that far.  But we can't do it without everyone: faculty, AP and COT together.   Starting this fall, we must all act together on a more focused concern with student progress than has been possible over the last couple of planning- and assessment-intensive years.  It is the smart thing to do.  But I think some of you will be surprised at the graduation rate in your major.  Whatever the inertias, our professional conscience tells us that improving our graduation rates is in the end the right thing to do.


To develop our curriculum, to increase our graduation rates, to wring every last drop of educational value—these are not easy promises to keep.  In each instance, they require us to venture out onto new territory, and to give up the comfort of old ways.  It is a challenge.  But though it is the difficult thing, it is the right thing for us to do.  And it is more than the sum of our plans and promises.  It is our promise as educators, a promise we can explore and extend at any stage of our careers.  


It is, at last, the promise we must keep.


But the first step to fulfilling our promises is to fulfill the promise of lunch, together as the faculty of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences.  Please join me outside under the Big Top.








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