"Pardon the Interruption: Tacking Forward through the Academic Year"

(A speech given by Dean Fred Antczak to the faculty and staff of the
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the CLAS spring meeting on April 19, 2006)


On behalf of the whole College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, congratulations again to the award winners.  We will make this part of our annual custom, honoring award-winning teaching in the Fall College Meeting (as you know, five of the six award winners this year, plus one of the two Teaching With Technology Award winners, come from CLAS), recognizing service in the spring meeting, and showcasing scholarly accomplishments in events like this.  We have special plans brewing for the winter meeting, but more on that in the fall.

We are surrounded in this room by the work of our colleagues.  I know you'll agree that there's been much achievement, and we have a lot to be proud of.  I'd like to ask the 'showcasers' to rise and accept our applause for their accomplishments!

Of course, events like this would not be possible without a lot of setup.  I want to recognize Dean Jann Joseph for her hard work on this event, our musicians both before and after this program, and the College office staff: since we have some new faces replacing people who have moved to departments, let me call them by name--Keesha Walker, who did a terrific job with a lot of the trickiest showcase arrangements; Courtney Sherwood; Jennifer Glaab; and Cindy Laug.  Cindy, could I ask you to come up here for a second please?  Cindy is about to go on a great adventure; she's visiting Kingston University in the UK on a vacation that begins tomorrow; after a couple of years devoted to refining her proposal she won an FTLC research grant, to study how their departmental and college administration works, and what we and they can learn from the differences.  Cindy, this is a FABULOUS example to staff, and really to everyone.  Grand Valley is a place where we all benefit from doing inquiry, learning, and improving things.  I want to encourage all our staff to consider whether Cindy's idea isn't worth learning more about, and I hope you ask yourself, 'why not me and my idea too?' 

Cindy will celebrate her 29th birthday, again, while she is in the UK.  Since the whole College benefits from her excellence, I wonder if I could ask you to join me in a chorus of 'Happy Birthday'?

It's good to be able to take a moment like that, and good to be able to take an afternoon like this.  Sometimes it seems that our professional lives are so full of what look like interruptions that it's difficult to get to our teaching, the center of our professional lives, and our connected duties in scholarship and service.  Especially this year, it seemed that interruptions came steadily to delay us, or knock us off our course.

But it's almost May, and we Lakers are soon to be in sailing season, and I want very briefly to explore a different metaphor to suggest how approaching what seem to be interruptions is really more like tacking with, and sometimes through, professional winds without which we'd be dead in the water.

Think of the challenges we faced this year, the ones I mentioned in the fall College meeting.  We have restructured the way the College is administered, to better serve our common dedication to liberal education.  We installed an Associate Dean of Students and Curriculum, Maria Cimitile, and searched for and found an Associate Dean for Professional Development and Administration, Jann Joseph.  If a key function of a dean is to be an appointing officer, I want to say to Maria and Jann what I said to our now-Associate Dean for Faculty Gary Stark in an earlier conversation, that I would love to be judged by the quality of people whom I've been privileged to appoint.   It was in a certain sense an interruption of the easy old ways of doing things, but by rearranging the associate deans functionally and helping the unit heads and many others understand how the new system works, it has helped to unite the College, generate some efficiencies that enabled us to keep our staff small and more resources in the departments, created some interdisciplinary connections and collaborations that we've not seen before.  It took a little change of course, but we're sailing along smoother and faster as a result of what looked like an interruption.

We asked, in the fall, for CLAS faculty to take time in their classes for another kind of interruption--to explain how each class participates in a truly liberalizing education.  Many faculty were doing this sort of thing already, and we received many thoughtful examples.  Thank you.  We've selected some paradigm instances, and will use them in new faculty orientation in the fall.  Of course they will also be put on the web.  We will be working hard over the summer to make the CLAS website more user-friendly, and a better resource for what you need.  The idea of using some different  models from across the College also applies to some other work you've done, very productively.  The College required each department seeking to search developed plans to diversify their candidate pool.  There was, to be sure, expected grumbling to the effect that, 'we're doing everything we always did.'  But departments stepped up, and I can report we've had a little more luck in recruiting diversely; and we will take those best practices and roll them into some suggestions for all departments to consider next time.  This interruption has actually thrown us forward.

The demands of strategic planning and assessment also seemed, to some, to be interruptions.  In fact as we've moved through them, CLAS has led the University in preparing us for accreditation--and let me make it clear, accreditation is an absolute necessity for Grand Valley and everyone who works here--as it approaches in 2008.  That seems like a long time away, but to actually HAVE some outcomes assessed by then is a short turn-around.  So it was essential that we got as far as we did, and I commend everyone for their work.  But it turns out that that work isn't just a paper requirement, not just busywork enforced by an agency unrelated to our mission.  Assessment is what we do all the time, in order to improve curriculum and instruction.  Asking what works and what doesn't and how do we know is essential to the voyage of teaching, and these activities have made us better, not just individually but collectively. 

Assessment dovetailed with strategic planning, which can really seem like an interruption; but it turns out that that activity works the same way.  It's my evaluation that most units took their task quite seriously, and most documents give us much to build on.  Next year will provide us time to fine-tune these plans and add particular strategies and measurements.  I want to make clear that these plans, when approved, will be central documents in College decision-making, resource allocation, and action plans for moving forward.  It turns out that we're just making explicit what--at our best--we were doing all the time.  Far from an interruption, strategic planning taken seriously will get us closer to our most hoped-for destinations.

We took on other important challenges this year. A faculty task force on learning space made its report, and a CLAS diversity task force did the same.  I'm pleased to tell you that both reports are up on the College website, under 'For Faculty.'  I encourage you to read them over the summer--the task force members probably were not thinking that they were composing beach reading--and in the fall we will ask the College's elected committees to make them a focus of their work for the year.  But between now and then I'd like us to thank publicly the members of each task force, who worked so hard.  Could I ask to rise please the members of the Learning Space Task Force whose chair was Neal Rogness?  Thank you.  Now please I ask the members of the Diversity Task Force who were led by Nancy Mack to rise.  Thank you. 

Whenever the College has a task force complete its work, its report will go on the website.  Transparency is essential to collaborative governance.  There are two task forces still out there: the CLAS Advising Task Force, co-led by Michael Ott and Betty Schaner, suspended their activities to assist the University in preparing for an outside team from NACADA to visit.  Now that their report is in to the Provost Office, our committee will pick up steam again.  And a Course Evaluation Task Force is going through redrafts of a set of common questions for the evaluation of teaching.  I am confident that, using the research that has already informed the project and the criticisms that, by interrupting, have pushed it forward, we will shape a set of common questions that will represent teaching performance better, will recognize excellence, and will guide ongoing teaching development--all because Grand Valley faculty don't see this as an interruption of some comfortable inertia, but an opportunity to improve and appreciate teaching.

I mentioned collaborative governance, and another one of the tasks we faced this year was to make our new faculty governance structure work.  You've heard the reports, and you know how hard and how productively your elected representatives worked.  I want to ask each committee to stand: Faculty Development, led by Matt Boelkins; Curriculum, led by Sherril Soman, who is teaching right now and can't be with us; Personnel, led by Shel Kopperl; and the Faculty Council, led by Ed Aboufadel.  I think this was an accomplished first year for each, and I can tell you that they worked very hard.  As an example, the College had 109 personnel cases, and they were done well and on time.  We need a couple more years shakedown cruise before we can assess, but my first observation is that the workload is so heavy, there seems not to be a big enough space on various committee calendars to take on issues of educational policy that the faculty have expressed the wish to raise. 

But that's a challenge for next year, and takes nothing away from the accomplishments of this year.  Congratulations!

We met other challenges too.  One of the trickiest is just listening to one another, and I want to thank everyone--about a fifth of CLAS's faculty--who participated in the open office hours I held in various buildings on campus this year.  It was a great way to meet faculty and staff individually, and it will continue next year; but I need to keep meeting with you collectively too, and will ask to intrude on department meetings next fall.

One of our great challenges, with such a young faculty, is Faculty Development.  By raising the floor of faculty development funds from $350 to $600 per person, faculty were able to pursue all kinds of scholarship, the rich variety of which we see around us today.

And finally, we began to wrestle with Workload.  Here, surely, seems one of those interruptions that drive faculty off course.  But, as it is already turning out, not so much! Last fall I called for CLAS faculty to participate and put our distinctive stamp on workload policy.  While that work is ongoing through faculty governance, more and more faculty are beginning to see ways in which a clear record of expectations and achievements can make personnel decisions less arbitrary, and more consistent across the College.  Is setting goals an unwelcome interruption?  Or is it, in fact, another one of those zephyrs that we can ride more smoothly to where we want to go?  The benchmarking that departments have done with 'aspirant peer' departments in similar universities will assist them in identifying best practices that are at the same time commensurate with the kind of University we are, the mission we have including accessibility and affordability.  Let me make it clear, throughout all of our benchmarking of best practices, that innovation is welcome; I expect us to lead.  We all know it is an age of new accountability in higher education.  We will have tasks of public accountability that, given the wonderful work we for the most part do, we should welcome.  And they are tasks that are in any case as ineluctable as the four winds.

Challenges await us next year--and the next year and the year after that.  While meeting them is not always visibly and immediately related to our central duties, we at Grand Valley find ways of using them to uplift our teaching, extend our service, and enrich our scholarship.

Every time I address you, I remind you how lucky we are to be called to this life, and how urgently we should set ourselves to our tasks.  For all of us, time is shorter than it feels.  I am completing my 27th year as a professor, and I know how fast that time has past--and how quickly the next 27 will go! Whether or not I'm with you for the full 27 to come, please know that every year is precious, and you should not let any year go by without making progress on what your professional life to be, and to accomplish.  But today I want to tell you how lucky I feel to be one of you--among you here in this celebration of excellence, at the end of a long year of many challenges and of accomplishments that will change our community for the better.  Despite the buffeting of various winds, we sailed forward together, through your efforts.  I am very proud of you.

That's enough for now. Pardon the interruption, if it was such.  Let's get back to the celebration, and begin to dream languid summer dreams of where we might go together whenever the winds--and the interruptions--come up again.

Page last modified March 9, 2018