The University We Ought to Want: Building with the Mortar of Commitment

Frederick J. Antczak, Dean of CLAS

August 26, 2010


Good morning.  We inaugurate this new year in a time of broadly apparent, deeply sensed change.  We see the economy dancing a dance that no one wants to call a Double Dip.  A new governor and legislature will be elected this fall.  Sometime after that, we may even be empowered to return to a full complement of Trustees.  You can feel it: it’s such a different time; the winds of change are blowing all around us.  And so we must confront two questions: how much should we, here at GVSU, in CLAS, worry?  And what can we do about it this year?

Let me suggest two sorts of reasons for confidence about Grand Valley this year.  The first is described in an article about the challenges facing higher education by Werner Z. Hirsch and Luc Weber.  They write:

The university is one of the greatest inventions of the present millennium: although created more than nine centuries ago, it remains one of the glories of human aspiration and one of the triumphs of the power of imagination. We, as members of its community of learning, challenge it to play a transforming role in society, and thus to transform itself.[1]

So, what have we learned? if we rise to be fully ourselves and to play our transformative role, we will continue to build the institution in a way that meets our challenges—it’s hard to disagree with this general point.  The trick in any year is to identify which of the myriad challenges to prioritize, and then to find ways to meet them.  But frankly that’s a stronger reason for confidence: whatever challenges may come, the CLAS faculty have consistently shown a capacity to rise to the occasion. 

For example, at this meeting just last year, when I predicted that, “our various publics are going to expect more; their eyes are on us to see what we do.”  I asked in particular for you to help the new Office of Fellowships to mentor our students towards winning support from some of the nation’s most prestigious sources.  And look at the great start you made last year:

  • Art & Design student Rachel Kauff was the first recipient of the Gordon Art Fellowship at the Pierce Cedar Creek Institute.
  • Ashley Keller was selected as a 2010 Morris K. Udall Scholar—GVSU’s first ever! Ashley is a behavioral science major with a concentration in sociology and a theatre minor.  We featured her in the video produced by University Development for the Enrichment Dinner.  CLAS was highlighted to our biggest annual meeting of donors—about 1,500 in attendance (including some of you).
  • Jamie Zimmerman, psychology major, was awarded the prestigious Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship to study in India.
  • Kyle Schneider was recognized for his interest in science and his strong research abilities and experiences. In his senior year, this chemistry major received the Goldwater Scholarship which he immediately put to good use at Yale.  In an additional coup, the January-March 2010 cover of the prestigious journal Biochemistry features the research Kyle did here with our colleagues David Leonard and Rachel Powers.

Or, when I asked you to be creative about the ways we can get our essential work done, and done better, in a time of scarce resources, you responded with a 40% increase in grant seeking, vigorous discussions in governance, curricular reviews of impressive scale, and high impact practices in your teaching and service that involved thousands of CLAS students in almost half a million hours annually of service learning, internship and other work that made their lives—and those of others—better. Or when the University asked to improve time to graduation, you created sections, streamlined courses, improved advising, and pushed GVSU to fourth among Michigan publics in six-year graduation rate, fourth in five-year; and in four-year graduation, we are, with the 2003 FTIAC cohort, now third in the state.


Notwithstanding these reasons for confidence, perhaps I should have been less surprised when this year the For-Profit universities, despite their different niches and demographics, turned their television advertising campaigns concertedly to raise their own profile—and, in the process, to vilify the traditional university.

According to Advertising Age, The University of Phoenix is spending $100 million a year on ads in measured media alone; think about that, they have a marketing machine that spends more, each year, than the advertising on Cheerios or Tide.  The University of Phoenix Online experienced 86.5% growth in enrollment in less than a year.  By the way, tuition rates for the University of Phoenix Online are $400 per undergraduate unit—that’s a little over GVSU’s $395 per credit hour.  They don’t, of course, talk very much about persistence or graduation rates.  Or the fact that their students are significantly more likely to default on student loans, backed by public monies. 

And the University of Phoenix wasn’t the only For-Profit ratcheting up the pressure.  Kaplan University got the attention of a recent meeting of university provosts that was covered in the Chronicle.[2]  George L. Mehaffy, a vice president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, told the provosts that it is "time to get serious about the process of change in American higher education. It is important that we resolve to make substantive changes—major changes, not changes around the margins—and that we do so with a fierce sense of urgency."

I submit that the issue isn’t so much that we are necessarily in direct competition for students with the For-Profits.  The issue salient for our long term future is the cumulative effect of their message on even those students who will never enroll there, and on the general public.  In almost so many words, they declare the traditional classroom dead—and dare us to prove otherwise.  On their website and in their ads, they tout faculty members who are “teachers, as well as working professionals”—as if we are not.

Theirs isn’t our model, and we should not capitulate to it.  But let’s not kid ourselves: we are also not going to be able to spend the millions needed to counterbalance all that advertising.  So it’s well to realize that if we should fail to significantly advance own plans and hopes for ourselves; if we should fail to keep up with the progress of ideas in our fields; if we should not check in through our research, creative work and service with the worlds of work and application; if we should fail to adopt the technological developments that our advancing forms of teaching and learning demand, then there are those among our potential students and the larger community who have been primed to fault—or even punish—us for it.

Still, if you ask me about how we’ll do this year, I like our chances. We have a variety of building blocks in place, first and foremost your teaching focus and ingenuity: this year for example we inaugurate the Intercultural Competence and Experience Certificate, the Green Chemistry Certificate, and the Comprehensive Sciences and Arts Major for Teaching. The Autism Center also joins us this year, and that doesn’t begin to enumerate the many positive program changes that faculty have done to update and streamline our curricula.  But there’s more: we are all beneficiaries of the far-sighted policies of those here who look after our resources, the beauty and functionality of our campus, our small but amazingly inventive and dedicated staff, even the rising ACT scores of the students who want to study here, all of these things put us—this fall, and into the future—in a far more solid position than many other places.  That position is ours, but only if we can hold it, and build on it.

One place we can start is the new tech for the classroom, for scholarship, and for publishing.  Learning those technologies can in the short term be difficult to get your head around, especially when you are already fully engaged with your teaching, so over the next year, our office will support you in making technological transitions essential for your work.  These transitions can be as small as those covered by tech tips you’ll see in the CLAS Acts newsletter, as easy and time-saving as working with the Digital Measures software, in which our office staff helped to enter data this summer. Or they can be larger, like new initiatives by the faculty that we’ll be promoting on the website, such as a very interesting style of e-publishing by Charlie Lowe of Writing, or perhaps some larger scale computational projects.  For my own graduate seminar this fall, I’m going to try Wimba to hold some office hours and to skype in some of the authors we’ll be reading. Understand, no one is pushing any particular technology for technology’s sake. But the use of technology is a part of the scholarship of teaching in each of our disciplines; it’s our responsibility to know about it.  And the literature is clear that this generation loves to learn with technology.  How can we teach our students to be lifelong learners if we are too inertial ourselves to model continued learning in the pedagogy of our discipline?

All this takes place in a context where there’s already much to do; there have been increases in tasks that aren’t teaching per se.  In the past few years, the world surrounding public higher education has changed rapidly--and so we have had no choice, this side of a painful and not necessarily slow extinction, but to adapt to the rapidly changing requirements of our environment: that means strategic planning, benchmarking, assessment, and all those registers of learning outcomes accountability.  It is irreversibly true that the world has moved to more evidence-based decision-making, and with that, to requiring more accountability in the form of assessment and data-gathering.  There will in the future be no access to expanding, or maintaining, resources without speaking this language. This is, in some part, the price of fairness in an organization our size and complexity.  This is what prevents decisions being made, as we hear about some universities, by whoever happens to be the last one to get the ear of the decision maker.  This is what protects organizations from old boys’ clubs, pockets of low quality and initiative-depleting expense hiding out under the radar, unconscious discrimination, programs falling behind the times.  In a complex organization this is how we, faculty and administration together in shared governance, keep an eye on things.  As those demands come in, our College Office will continue to work on ways to simplify them and to streamline our joint and several capacities to respond. 

Further, we know that we must find or reallocate resources to support all aspects of our workload. It’s imperative that we continue to grow the available CLAS faculty—after sabbaticals and loans and all manner of work we do for the university—toward, and past, 500 strong.  Our growth in tenure track lines this year will extend a happy trend that has continued every year in the evolution of CLAS: we enjoyed last year another 5% drop in the number of faculty here who teach more than 9 credits (in fact, our average for tenure track faculty is now 8.65 credits per semester).  Just as with student success, we’re prioritizing, working hard towards our goals, and seeing steady positive results. The staff, too, do their best work in support of the students, faculty, alumni and other constituents when they have reasonable loads.  So however much progress we have already made, and whatever happens on the outside, the College is committed, even where it means reallocation, to continue building towards this goal of workload equity for faculty and staff—and we must continue to build, for the sake of our primary duties as educators. 

The truth is, we can be confident that more tasks will come at us--it would not be a jaw-dropping surprise to hear more this year about, say, smoothing the transitions of our transfer students, or developing more "high impact practices"—and we may have to change some workloads to adapt to such mandates.  The College is committed to help, whether it is responding in depth to self-studies, providing good models for assessment, or reallocating the resources so that we can do what is more important.


I’m hoping our 50 year anniversary, our Quinquagenary, can generate some reflection about what is most important in the next year, the next five, the next ten years--years that may look quite different from the last decade.   Perhaps one topic should be how to meet rising student expectations; we must understand, and teach, the difference that Plato talked about in the Gorgias between giving them what they crave, and providing what they ought to want.  We need to take the time to reflect individually, and to discuss together, how our pedagogy might continue to advance in order to more greatly enrich the diverse lives of our students entering a world of accelerating and unpredictable change.  Again it's a matter of striking a new balance as conditions change--and that's a challenge with which we are not wholly unfamiliar.  Just as we faculty struggle between specialization (into our scholarship, as the frontiers of knowledge inexorably move), and generalization out toward the broadest, richest possible learning and service communities, we must help our students acquire—but not be wholly defined by---skills that will prove useful in the world.

One place where this struggle affects the allocation of resources and effort is in benchmarking.  We may now be #7 among Midwest regional universities as US News and World Report has it, but to offer the "best" undergraduate liberal education, we must regularly do the work of comparing ourselves to others; one way the College is helping early this year is to bring in two distinguished external consultants to discuss with the Department of English their self study and their plans for a shared future.  Yet we must be careful about the kinds of comparisons we make, and the uses to which we put them.  It makes sense, for example when we are thinking about how to do new faculty development, or even, in recruiting, about how to position scholarship packages or university marketing, to observe the universities with which we compete, and among which we must hold our own.  But when it comes to our academic life, we should be careful to benchmark not mainly with institutions which for reasons of proximity or habit are our recruitment peers, but with our aspirant peers, the institutions that function educationally as we aspire to.  With due respect to our competitors, and to every other institution of higher education, we need to plan, we need to build, not the kind of university we immediately compete with, nor the University that the battery of advertising has told students they should seek, but more fully the University we want to be—not to enjoy the more familiar, convenient, undemanding kind of university we might in our weaker moments crave, but to build together the University that, on behalf of students present and future, we ought to want. When the winds of change sound like they might blow us around, the most crucial challenge to the character of our institution is to keep that vision of education central in its development—central to the institution that the faculty and staff in this room have built, and will build, of their sweat and energy: bound together, firm and true, with the mortar of our commitment. 


There are smaller and easier challenges we can meet, perhaps even in Fall semester, and there are larger, more difficult ones that will take consultation, collaboration and commitment.  In the immediate future, we need to put together the building blocks we constructed last year.  It will be small trouble and do great good if units update their strategic plans and personnel policies to be confluent with what governance wrote and the faculty approved for the College.  This year we’ll be bringing in these 13 new faculty; for their sake, and for future years when we’ll bring in more, I ask that you revisit your mentoring plans, many of which were conceived 4 or 5 years back, see what is working, and see how to enhance that effectiveness. 

But now is not solely a time of adjusting our blueprint.  This year is not only different from recent ones in having flatter resources (although I want you to be confident that we will have enough to address our essential priorities); it is also a year, for the first time in some years, in which we have received no significant new mandate.  So now, this year, is the time to turn our attention and energy to the goals we have chosen as most important for creating, from the department and program level up, the University that we want for our students.   Each and every CLAS unit must take it upon itself, this year, to pursue ambitiously some of the more pressing and proximate goals it has chosen. We must do so with George Mehaffy’s “fierce sense of urgency.”  And each faculty member, each staff member, regardless of rank or seniority, must play an active role, this year, in that process.  I challenge you to build towards goals you have chosen—and make sufficiently substantive progress that, at the end of the year, you’ll be proud to report what you have done.

Each member of the College Office will work with similar urgency and ambition.  In our collaboration with collegiate governance and with every unit, our College Office will once again work to provide the venues for discussion about big picture goals, such as the Out of the Box events that your Faculty Council design, and for which they are setting the agenda this fall of building the culture and procedures of “Academic Integrity.”   And we’ll continue to create other inclusive and interdisciplinary opportunities for substantive discussion.  Perhaps the most exciting will be CLAS’s first Teaching Showcase.  It will be held November 22, the Monday before Thanksgiving, and you’ll be hearing more about it as the date gets closer.


It’s our responsibility.  The squalls are rattling the storm windows on our watch.  It's the privilege of our professional lives to have been given this responsibility; and knowing how the CLAS faculty respond to challenges, there’s no one I’d rather stand with to face the challenges ahead.

Now, I know what I’m asking of the faculty of CLAS is neither simple nor easy: continue to do what we do, but be ready to adapt to changing conditions; advance along with knowledge and pedagogy in our fields, but stay true to ourselves and our mission.  It is our commitment that makes sense of it at each juncture, our commitment that holds it all together over time—ultimately, a commitment to our students, and to each other.  The winds will continue to shift, and we’ll probably hear them howl a little.  We’ll be all right—we will be fine—IF we keep building GVSU towards the university we ought to want.  This year, no matter how the winds blow, it is our time to build Grand Valley.


[1] Challenges Facing Higher Education at the Millennium, Werner Z. Hirsch and Luc Weber, 1999, page 178.



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