Professing More: Six Ways to Extend Our Reach

Frederick J. Antczak, Dean
College of Liberal Arts & Sciences
August 23, 2012


There’s good news to begin with.

Last year GVSU graduated its largest class ever—5,301 students earned diplomas in 2011-2012. The university announced that “Grand Valley ranks fourth in its graduation rate among Michigan’s 15 public universities, exceeded only by the University of Michigan, Michigan State and Michigan Technological universities.”[1] That’s our highest graduation rate ever.

Still it’s been a troubling summer in a troubling time.  From Lansing to Washington, Charlottesville to Happy Valley there has been heavy criticism of who we are and how we do our work.  Never has the metaphor “ivory tower” been more of an insult.   Public higher education faces challenges from legislatures in funding and oversight, from the coming demographics, from new technologies, even from questioning of its mission: as tuition has had to rise higher and higher, just maintaining quality is no longer good enough; we actually have heard the public question the value of a college education. Let’s bring that point home: this year, for the first time, Laker students will be paying more than $10,000 in tuition annually, and expectations will rise accordingly.  Most of my remarks today will recount our excellences and accomplishments, and how they can be springboards for the future.  But mark me: in our time, maintaining what we do will simply not be enough. We are an institution dedicated to our students’ learning and development; but even as soon as when we get together again this spring for our Sabbatical Showcase, we’ll need to show evidence of how we’ve learned and developed ourselves.  Our circumstances are changing—and hence our metaphors.

Most of the familiar metaphors for what it means to profess were about its disconnection—the academy is a walled city, monastic, an” ivory tower.”  They are vestiges of a time in which literacy itself came to be cloistered because it needed some bricks-and-mortar protection.  But remember, that sense is not the original.  Peripatetic schools, schools conducted in the Lyceum, or under a plane tree suggested their integral connection with the polis.  Think about passersby in the dialogues who get swept into the conversation—Socrates’s early version of community outreach.  There also are remnants of those metaphors in our symposia and forums and colloquia.

Vertiginous as it feels, it’s nothing really new to find our metaphors, and circumstances, changing.  Today, we are challenged to find, or construct, our profession among new metaphors—the open access elements of the internet, the electronic connectivity of even pre-adolescents, that second brain we all use called Google. We must extend our reach into a realm full of MOOCs and hybrids, transfer adapter modules and classes that flip.  This all puts into play the pedagogy with which we teach, the institutions in which we publish, how we judge the fruits of one another’s labors, and perhaps even some of our self-conception.  With our metaphors and our circumstances, our work is changing. 

But from the beginning of our profession, change has been what we do. I’ve spoken with you over the last five years or so about our need for flexibility, ingenuity, and nimbleness.  Anyone who knows our College can tell you that these are apt descriptors of us, and we will need those attributes in the future.  But what I can tell you today—as we graduate more of our students, as we have our salaries adjusted upward, as new buildings move from dream toward reality—is that the work you have done here, the sacrifices and changes we have made have put a better future within our reach. Today I want to suggest some work we can do together this year to realize that future.  Put another way, as we explore what it is to profess in our challenging time, how can we make 2012-13 be a year of professing more?

First let me say this may be a somewhat different task for us here at GVSU.  Some of you may know what’s going on at other universities: multiple year salary freezes or even reductions, workload increases and the abolition of longstanding programs and the tenured positions that went with them.  We talk to our colleagues elsewhere and think ourselves fortunate.  We read the calls in The Chronicle of Higher Education and elsewhere to accept the inevitability of change, the need for reform, and the increasingly complex needs of our world that ask ever more of our students.  But we already know success in providing a world-class liberal education involves not just communication and critical thinking, but also creativity and innovation; not just numeracy and literacy but also cultural awareness and sensitivity—and requires delivering those outcomes demonstrably, while widening access to education. 

As faculty and staff, we remember that success is not just about graduation numbers.  We know that we can do better in extending access to those who have enjoyed less preparation for college from their family and their K-12 experience, or who are struggling financially to be here, or who are seeking their education at a non-traditional point in their lives—or all three.  Our challenges will include learning about these newer student populations, matching our systems and pedagogies to meet their needs, and extending ourselves to make personal connections, especially with the first gen students who need us most.  The University loses about 17% of the class between their freshman and sophomore years, and of course we in CLAS teach many of them; let’s take it as a challenge this year to make this a better place for them to take root academically.  I ask you to extend a personal connection; our goal is not just access or intake, but inclusion.

We’ll be wise to avoid becoming so obsessed with numbers that we compromise quality, or deplete the educational atmosphere that has brought us this far.  I’m very glad that even as we graduate record numbers, the markers of quality are more evident.  We’re seeing more of our graduates enter medical school, are sending more students on fabulous overseas experiences with the help of prestigious fellowships, and involving greater numbers of our students in study abroad and experiences like internships and faculty-guided research.  We know from experience and the scholarly literature that these experiences not only create the sort of engagement that propels graduation rates, but also deliver on quality.  We have delivered.  Just since the Office of Fellowships opened, CLAS students have won 36 high prestige fellowships such as Fulbrights, Borens, the Goldwater, Gilmans and more. These are markers of the value of what we do  Back in 2008, 262 of our students studied abroad; last year that number reached 414.  CLAS added 16 scholarships in the last 4 years and more are on the way. You helped make that happen.  So, let’s make that happen more; like Socrates, let’s extend more high impact practices into our teaching.

I’m glad we have trimmed away some pre-requisites—some, where appropriate—and looked at curriculum delivery with an eye to making it better AND more streamlined—pruning, but never taking an indiscriminant hatchet to what remains a first rate liberal education.  In our assessments we’ve done an increasingly good job of asking the questions we need answered.  As Debra Humphreys, a Vice President at the AAC&U has argued[2], colleges in our day must start with clarity about learning outcomes, ensure that all students get the benefit of high impact educational practices, and use meaningful and authentic assessments.  Without getting tangled in bureaucracy, we do.  But to keep things happening in our curriculum, we must reach for new ways to keep our teaching practices adapted to evolving circumstances. For instance, it’s easy to foresee that we will need to equip our students with the tools to handle unprecedentedly large amounts of data. I really believe this will become an imperative not just in the sciences, but in every discipline, and very soon. How many of us would claim to be ready?  

In the future, we probably will have to figure out how to profess more with less—without the advantage of huge increases in new faculty lines, with less space than would feel optimal, and with continued scrutiny on spending.  But some counterbalancing help is on the way.  The new Library will open next year and will have a cascade of space benefits across south campus.  The new science lab, classroom, and office building will follow closely on the library’s heels.  Soon AWRI will be bringing a needed research building into action with enormous community support from Muskegon, a grant, and some fundraising.  So the next four years will be a time of significant physical expansion. 

And not all of our resources are of bricks and mortar.  Our Risk Reduction Taskforce has built a web-based resource that will help us to keep our students safer as they reach into the community, and take up many high impact activities; this resource will make it easier for faculty to integrate those activities into their courses.  Under the leadership of Danielle Leek, we’re growing a Speech Lab which is already helping students with their oral presentations and giving valuable opportunities to more than a dozen peer tutors.  CLAS faculty governance has built resources for you, reaching from academic integrity to information on writing successful sabbatical proposals. 

Some of our most important resources are flesh and blood.  I mean our devoted, resourceful and extraordinary APs and COT staff.  They continue to find sustainable ways to do things quicker, more accurately, adding impact without adding cost.  They reuse and repurpose, freeing faculty to profess more.  GVSU runs with a very lean staffing model, but I want to say, CLAS APs and COTs punch far above their weight.

Meanwhile the faculty keep reaching for grants to fund research experiences that they share with their students directly or in their teaching.  You perform, you compete, you publish, you speak in our community and beyond. Your increasing national visibility adds to the prestige of the degrees not only of current and future students, but even of our alumni.  Alums know it too.  My most vivid memories of recent Homecomings are of alumni coming up to tell us “GVSU just keeps getting better and more amazing—I can’t get over it” and they say it with big smiles on their faces.

But it’s up to us to keep our banners flying; please be on the lookout for ways to make sure that we continue to highlight our work publicly.  We may have to answer when opportunity knocks as Ed Aboufadel of Mathematics did by entering his collaborative solution to pothole detection into a contest—so far, his success has been covered by over 200 media sources—including one in Brazil!  As a consequence, GVSU is that much more ‘on the map’. This is what we must do more of: solving problems, adding to our knowledge, giving our students opportunities, but also taking our story to a larger audience.   It pays dividends as we recruit, make our case to Lansing, and ask for the support of our alumni and friends. . Translators such as Diane Rayor and Jason Yancey, and directors and dramaturgs such as Karen Libman and James Bell—our colleagues—have staged world premieres of newly translated plays for our local community and international festivals.  Communication colleagues brought the state debate tournament to campus, historians do History day, and our Regional Math and Science Center brought Grandparents and Grandkids.  Let’s keep looking for opportunities to bring students to campus and involve them with our work.

And let’s bring the world, the bright stars from our fields, to campus to speak and to meet with students.  History has the Great Lakes Conference. Classics brought their colleagues of the Midwest and South.  A Sociology conference came here quite triumphantly last year thanks to the efforts of Lisa Hickman, Rachel Campbell and Joe Verschaeve.  Philosophy and Chemistry are queuing up to do the same very soon. Let’s continue to reach for opportunities to bring our academic communities here to Grand Valley.

We must be innovative in our teaching and curriculum to meet our new challenges. Indeed, over the summer I’ve been hearing about some of your experiments with flipped classrooms, new technology, and the integration of role playing in courses from mathematics to speech to history.  We’ll be touching base with these trials in CLAS Acts so that we can share what we learn, know one another that much better, and make the best use of the diversity of our diverse College.  We have challenges; but I’m a believer in crowdsourcing when you are the crowd.

As successful as we have been, and at the risk of seeming insufficiently grateful for the epic multi-tasking that you already engage in, we need this year to extend our reach.  We have to be more watchfully engaged with our broader communities, and to reach for emerging opportunities.  Here, especially in CLAS, we have robust faculty governance and AP governance, so I especially invite you to be aware of governance issues, to vote and to answer calls for consultation, and even to serve—everyone who does seems to come away more aware of the Big Picture, and of the opportunities it offers, and of the next changes it portends.

We’ve been able to show the state that we are behaving responsibly, and we benefitted from that to the tune of $2.8M in additional one-time dollars from the state this year.  But here’s the thing:  we haven’t become an academic Kmart in the process. We have not asked departments to be self-supporting or for faculty to punch time clocks. GVSU has answered calls for access, transparency and accountability, not simply because they make business sense, but because we are finding how they align integrally with our educational mission.  Some kinds of reform in higher ed are truly needed.  The question is how not to impose in a panicky way some foreign format that will inevitably prove inappropriate to American higher education’s mission and values, but how to make it more responsive to our distinctive mission.  I have one suggestion for how to make that happen:  for those units writing self studies or developing strategic plans or reviewing their Standards & Criteria for Personnel Evaluation this year, I ask the faculty to consider whether the unit standards sufficiently promote faculty advising, innovation, interdisciplinarity, an international focus, and a community connection, to enable us to do all of what we now must do. Let’s align our plans and incentives with what, in these changing times, we must accomplish.

Look, there’s a lot of background noise in our time.  Our detractors can seem abundant, and our champions, by the defensive nature of their task and the relentlessness of the attacks, can seem a bit weary.  We, though, have one another;  we are part of an institution that has a noble purpose, and through all the changing circumstances, an indefatigably adaptive commitment to it.  Let’s make 2012-13 a year both of far reaching conversation about what professing really means in our time, and of actions that extend its reach.  That might start with these six ways of “professing more”:

  • extending a personal connection, especially to first gen and non-traditional students, to keep more of them here to succeed;
  • inventing teaching pedagogies to address our changing situation and students;
  • finding new resources from on campus and beyond, and learning to use them in new ways to address emerging needs;
  • working your network to attract outside events and conferences;
  • engaging more with faculty governance; or
  • aligning our plans and our evaluations to promote what we need done in our changing work.

As always, I remind you how lucky we are to do the important work we do—and how doubly lucky we are to do it in this place, driven by its distinctive values. Our task, in the face of fundamental and urgent challenges, is as always to aspire and innovate.  Whether in new or familiar venues, whether by peripatetic or traditional or entirely new practices, let’s dedicate this year to finding ways of extending our reach, and professing more.



[1] GV Now, Graduate total sets new record , July 13, 2012.

[2] “What’s Wrong with the Completion Agenda—And What We Can Do About It, Liberal Education Winter 2012, p. 15.

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