Reaching for Pebbles in the Valley of Elah


Frederick J. Antczak

April 6, 2011


According to the Bible’s first book of Samuel, there was a fateful day when the Israelite army faced off against the greatest regional power of the time, the Philistines, across the Valley of Elah.  In lieu of all-out war, the Philistines’ monstrous warrior Goliath defied the Israelites to send out a champion for one-on-one combat.  Then a shepherd boy volunteered for the mission.  He declined—improbably—King Saul’s armor, and instead went out to confront the challenge in his own way, armed only with a slingshot, reaching for a few pebbles as he went.  

The story raises questions about what is important and which way we choose to act.  I recall the words of the poet Josephine Miles, who in a poem called David attributes David’s success over Goliath to the fact that he “for more was ready.”  Along the way she warns that Goliaths are “Fully determined by the limits of their experience.”[1]  While at my age I am biased toward counting experience among assets to be valued, her point is well taken—conditions can change, suddenly and fundamentally.  And what is interesting is that there is a similarity to GVSU.  Perhaps alone among the state schools, we are not fully determined.  In another 50 years, the University of Michigan will be pretty much the University of Michigan, Central and Western and Eastern and Northern will be largely what they are.  But no one can yet predict what will happen with our University.  We are the pivotal generation; it’s really up to us to shape our future.  How will we face our challenges, monstrous and otherwise? And what resources do we have to yet again succeed in performing our mission?

In the first months of Governor Snyder’s administration we have some sense of what his principle of “shared sacrifice” looks like for us. This year, the state is significantly disinvesting in higher education, even as it becomes clear that its future depends on it.  Governor Snyder has hinted that when Michigan’s economic pall lifts, more funds will again be available—and I want to comment on that.  But for now, what exists is a 22% cut in state allocations, with a promise to reduce it to 15%--in one-time money—if we keep our tuition hike low.

How significant is that cut? WGVU radio asked President Haas if we are to the point of having been largely privatized by the state.  He said, "We really are. That is not a statement of hyperbole. If we get state appropriation with a 22% budget cut which will bring us to about just over $2,100 per student, the private institutions I know, for needy students, get about $2,100 per student. So, in effect, Grand Valley has to operate as a tuition driven, independent school but with a public purpose.”  I’ll bet that, when Shel Kopperl, our resident elder and sage, arrived four decades ago, or when any one of our wonderful first year faculty came aboard last fall, they thought they were coming to a public university.  While our public purpose is still not in question, our public funding, in historic proportions, is.  Conditions have changed, and we must keep in mind as we carry out our routines that they can suddenly change again.

Today I want to say two different kinds of things about the challenges we confront.  F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that the true test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time, but in the end these two notions may not prove entirely contradictory.  They are that we have been fighting the fight resourcefully, and CLAS had a wonderful year in 2010-11; but that conditions change, and we may need to change with them.  It’s for sure that different challenges are coming. Of course this doesn’t say all that needs to be said about the threat posed by privatization; we need to leave that larger topic to another day.

We’ve known for some time that we’ll have to find different ways to afford what we do, and that will mean becoming more tuition-dependent.  What makes that challenging is, right in front of us, a demographic gulf we must somehow bridge.  I’ve been looking (along with the other deans and administrators) at the actual and projected percentage changes in public high school graduates, by region and state.  The very short version is that in only 8 years we’ll have almost 18% fewer Michigan high school graduates.  The Midwest as a whole will be down 7.2%.  In fact, only the West and the South regions of the nation will increase.  Let me give you some perspective—between 2001 and 2006, Michigan increased its graduation rates by 17% and now we are looking at being down by more than that much.  That’s fewer top notch students to compete for, that’s fewer parents with college-age children to support the need for public education.  It’s clear that reputation and recruitment are going to have to become growth industries at GVSU.

On the other hand, let me say our planning recently has been astute, and we are not even looking at scenarios that other institutions are already implementing.  No one has been laid off from a tenure track faculty or AP job, no search closed for economic reasons. We’ve even managed to do a little more faculty hiring. In fact, measurably, things continue at a modest but persistent rate to get better.  As we review the trends of the last 5 years, we note that we have made significant progress in all affected departments on moving the faculty workload toward 9 teaching credits, meanwhile pushing class size, on average, slightly down.  There are trends in the other direction, of course.  For example, Classics' inventive advertising campaign has resulted in steady increases in class size in both Latin and Greek—a striking testament to their ingenuity, an example perhaps with application elsewhere. Such success is a cause for celebration; as we all know, whenever one of the liberal arts and sciences prospers, that achieves a public good.

Over the last five years as we grew in CLAS, though, I’m happy to report that we’ve been able to reduce class sizes by 3%.  And in those categories in which they are up (such as Labs and Lectures) they are up about 1%, in many cases that’s less than a single student on average.  And because we have grown the faculty, about 5% more student credit hours are now taught by permanent faculty than five years ago. So the overall mix of numbers is steadily getting better; we need to keep that going in the right direction for our mission.

And despite the formidable challenges we faced this year, we achieved our mission with another remarkable record of student achievement.  Ellise Williams was awarded a Gilman International Scholarship to study abroad.  Caitlin Cusack won national recognition for her voice in the Young Arts Competition.  Angela Antonio is the state's only student named a Most Promising Minority Student by the AAF.  Jon Little, a broadcasting major, won a competitive internship at ESPN.  Nicole Summers a double major in German and psychology was chosen to be an international ambassador for the Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst (DAAD). English major Jen Torreano won the East Central Writing Centers Association Leader of the Year award and Writing major Allie Oosta has won the ECWCA's Tutor of the Year award.  International Relations student Annie Hakim won the student Niemeyer Award.  That’s the tip of a pretty wonderful iceberg.

Faculty also kept our reputation moving forward.  Mary Schutten, Associate Dean of CLAS and Professor of Movement Science won the 2011 American Association for Health Education University Health Education Specialist Award.  Peter Anderson of Classics received a Collegiate Teaching Excellence Award from the American Philological Association.   Diane Rayor of Classics is one of this year’s Niemeyer Award winners in addition to signing another contract with Cambridge University Press.  And early reports are that Music did a great job on their accreditation visit, with kudos to all the faculty, to Danny Phipps and especially Kevin Tutt.

We cleaned up in the CSCE Awards for Scholarly and Creative Excellence:

  • The Distinguished Early-Career Scholars are Rachel Powers of Chemistry and Ryan Thum of the Annis Water Resources Institute
  • The Distinguished Undergraduate Mentor is Steven Schlicker of Mathematics     
  • The Distinguished Graduate Mentor is Deborah Herrington of Chemistry

 We also did quite nicely in the Pew Awards for Excellence:

  • Pew Teaching Excellence Awards went to Margaret Dietrich of Cell and Molecular Biology, Bruce Ostrow of Biology, and Heather Van Wormer of Anthropology
  • Pew Teaching with Technology Award went to Jennifer Gross of Psychology

 The University Awards for Excellence went quite deservedly to our colleagues as well.

  • Outstanding University Service Award went to Shaily Menon of Biology   
  • Distinguished Contribution in a Discipline Award went to Gary Stark of History and Associate Dean of CLAS

Recently, Dana Monk of Movement Science received a Women's Impact Award, and Gretchen Galbraith of History was given the Barbara Jordan Award.  Jim Penn was named the Professor of the Year by the Educational Support Program which serves first-generation college students in severe poverty -- the University's most at-risk students.  Even that list is not mentioning them all.

These awards are emblematic of very considerable and excellent work on the part of the recipient and not inconsiderable and generous work on the part of the colleagues who nominated them.  Part of their meaning is being considered in the company of distinguished colleagues who have earned them in prior years.  I never forget the distinguished company I keep every day here. 

This year, we kept our creative juices flowing, too.  As usual, we brought some memorable speakers to campus; but we staged for the first time in many years a major dance work by Martha Graham; credit there goes to our colleague Shawn Bible for his leadership, and many colleagues for their skilled contributions. Our filmmakers led by Kim Roberts inspired the campus to “Come Sail Away” with a LipDub which had over 150,000 YouTube hits the last time I looked. We celebrated the talents of our musicians, actors and writers throughout the 50th anniversary celebration; their excellence represents our excellences so well.  Creativity also came in other forms.  We supported science in ways Super and Olympian, gave History its special Day and its Great Lakes Conference, and I hope you saw our dramatic water volcano at Homecoming.  And we began work on projects which will come to fruition in years to come, such as the conference of the Michigan Sociological Association.

CLAS continues to grow.  This year we became the home of the Autism Center, which thrives under the leadership of Amy Matthews and Jamie Owen-DeSchryver; CSAT, thanks to the coordinating work of David Coffey; and ICE, which Regina McClinton brought into existence. 

Faculty governance is stronger—and this year it seems important to say I’m proud that shared governance works, and proud of how it works in the College.  In many places, faculty are not allowed to provide feedback on their dean.  This year a 360 feedback assessment was made of my work by an ad hoc representative faculty group led by Faculty Council’s Gabriella Pozzi.  Faculty Council also continued with its innovative Out of the Box program, this time on Academic Integrity, and soon they will help prioritize requests for faculty lines, all under Grace Coolidge’s leadership.  Meanwhile about 50 applications for sabbaticals were considered by our Faculty Development Committee, 84 cases for tenure and promotion were addressed by our Personnel Committee and so far more than 180 curricular changes have been examined by our Curriculum Committee.  My sincere thanks to those committees and their chairs.   Not only do these committees hold up a lot of sky, they are a cross-disciplinary collegiate backbone unmatched at the University for depth and range. 

In the midst of all this activity, the focus remained on teaching.  I looked back over the academic year’s issues of CLAS Acts and had to smile at where and how high and far our teaching takes us—to Nicaragua, onto the stage, into the K-12 schools, to conference with your students, to spread your passion for diversity to others, to prepare seminars for your colleagues.  At our new Teaching Roundtables, twelve award-winning faculty shared some of their favorite teaching ideas with their colleagues.  This summer CLAS will produce its report on teaching, on the renewal of fundamental values in more ambitious contexts, so that we can articulate the fundamental importance of teaching in our mission to our many constituencies.  The CLAS Fund for Excellence was able to support impactful projects that help our students learn.  And hats off to all faculty and staff who made an effort to attend seminars and colloquia, including the CLAS Colloquium so well led by Mark Staves, who became inclusion advocates or joined Allies and Advocates, who took Wimba training (it turned out so simple a Dean could do it), or who were one of the 15 faculty who represented us well by tramping downtown to demonstrate how to “teach with technology,” or who in some other way sharpened the saw to develop themselves as better teachers and learners.

We broke ground on the Library, which will benefit CLAS most directly; indirectly, the cascade of moving out of and into Zumberg will eventually help address space needs in many other units.  We secured a significant downpayment on the funding for a lab building which will improve the situation for our growing sciences.  These projects propel forward in the priority queue a long-awaited space for the arts, about which we have been talking over many months to representatives of all affected departments to get their input and create synergies.  And we were the recipients of some rather wonderful gifts-in-kind like a whole library of Classics books and a mass spectrometer.  Such gifts support us in accomplishing our primary most compelling strategic objective—to teach our students well.

There are crucial lessons in this astonishing roll of successes.  We have become the University we are--stable, relatively prosperous, and steadily on the rise as conditions, sometimes suddenly, change—partly because we have been able to change with them and grow as a community.  We have not rested on our laurels or coasted on our oars.  This starts with the way we lead ourselves: we have become ever more strategic and data-savvy in our decisions.  Back doors circumventing procedure have been closed; ideas for our future have to compete on their merits—and our ideas do so very well.  We literally know what we are doing—and thanks to the hard and sometimes thankless labor of assessment we know the results of what we are doing—to a much greater extent.  Now we can shape our ambitions and strategies for the future on the basis of that knowledge.  To modify the motto of Faber College, "data is (or rather, are) good."

All this said, we must keep our balance, and avoid being data-driven in the wrong sense.  More and more of our effort is dedicated to gathering and processing data—for lots of good reasons, and many necessary audiences.  Some data sets are properly for our own decision-making; some are for external accreditation; some are for the state and the public's information, some are for external recognitions like the AAC&U's "Engaged University" awards.  It seems we must do more of this than we used to; we owe information to our publics and cannot fail to provide it.  But there are dangers toward which we may be driven by our very capacity to capture and characterize data, dangers that grow all the more tempting whenever we find Grand Valley has a great story to tell.  When we chase data, there is the danger that we shift efforts from that which we must do towards that which we can measure.  When we shift efforts, we may shift them away from less measurable goals--some of which may be essential to our fundamental mission of educating students to shape their lives, their professions and their societies.  We should beware of, say, the advising appointment that becomes a sprint down a checklist, rather than a conversation that proceeds organically from topic to topic as they are important in the student’s life and development.  We should remind ourselves of how tempting it is to let a course or curriculum become an extensive attempt to touch every base that external audiences demand, instead of a study that becomes intensive just at the distinctive place where students' interests can begin to open their minds.

What we do best is educate; we must be smart and organized about not being pulled away from the core activities by which we educate students to shape their lives, their professions, and their societies.  That is our mission.  The measure in which data-gathering serves it is the measure we should do data-gathering. AND we have to be willing to change old habits where that can help minimize distractions from our mission.

That’s why we’ve provided help getting CVs into Digital Measures.  That is why the Provost Office hired a student (who was trained up in our own Biology Department) to continue to help us get aboard.  We want to get out of the business of having to ask our units for disks and data about your high impact practices.  As far as possible, we want to just run necessary reports without having to call you away from your teaching.  It will allow all of us to perform better and to be available to one another for things that matter very much.

So, let’s be data driven in the right sense; let us be mission-driven in our fundamental commitment.  If we don't perform that mission, no pile of data will be able to hide it; if we do succeed in doing our mission, we’ll have a story worth telling, and more and more people will know it. Let us be no less determined than those who came before us in the first fifty years to face down our huge challenges and achieve our mission; but let us not be overdetermined, too inflexible to change so that we may find whatever may be the best way forward.  It’s becoming increasingly clear that we must loosen our grasp on the comfortable practices of the past and find ways of working that preserve our mission and each other.

That’s because performance—not entitlement--should be the criterion, both externally and internally.  The state by an old and hoary habit gives some of the older institutions more support without indexing it to how they’re doing their work.  When Governor Snyder’s long term vision comes true and more public funds are again available to support the public universities, we ask the state to distribute these scarce resources not by the usual politics that led us to this perilous situation in the first place, but by judging and rewarding institutions on the basis of what we accomplish—graduation rates, time to graduation, the relevance of degrees, the willingness of graduates to dig in here, in Michigan, and contribute; whatever the state should want, I say let them tell us, and then let us compete on a fair basis for resources that are dolloped out today  noncompetitively.   

This is what President Haas has been saying; and of course if we’re going to continue to say this to the state, then in the same way, we must walk the talk internally.  We must overcome some of our own habits, and be willing—even if it requires some learning on our part—to do things new.  Going forward can’t just be an additive process in a university with relatively flat resources.  If there’s not enough around, we should share; I’m proud to say that in order to staff the Autism Center, the College Office gave up some secretarial help, and re-engineered some of our processes to still get our work done promptly and accurately.  If there were old things that once worked, and now time and the progress of our fields has passed them by, we must be willing to sunset them in order to free the resources to do the next great thing.  If there’s a practice of offering low enrolled upper division courses that address someone’s scholarly interests more than answering student demand, we must teach it on a rotation that insures a fuller classroom.  If technology would enable us to offer a learning experience in ways that save student tuition dollars, then faculty—and I don’t just mean the early adopters and advocates, but everyone—should explore those ways and be willing to make those pedagogical advances work for student learning.  Like David reaching around for what resources were within his grasp, we need to be inventive and adaptive, lest we be overcome by the challenges that confront us.  What I hope has been characteristic of CLAS is that we have been determined to find the next great ideas, and that we have not been so overdetermined as to become unable, or from sheer inertia unwilling, to do what’s needed to afford and implement them.

I know that sometimes, it seems like we have to move a boulder to make a pebble’s worth of difference.  But sometimes all it takes is one sharp pebble—just ask Goliath.  No matter how huge the challenges confronting us have been, those little differences have made the difference, and will continue to make the difference that allows us—astonishingly, in many ways uniquely among the Michigan public universities—to slingshot past the challenges and to perform our mission with the excellence and commitment that sets apart Grand Valley State University and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.


[1] “David”, To All Appearances: Poems New and Selected, by Josephine Miles (Univ. of Illinois Press, 1974), p. 137.

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