"Transitions and Essentials: Liberal Arts & Sciences as Essential Arts for Living"
(A speech given by Dean Fred Antczak to the faculty and staff of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences on August 25, 2005)

Welcome to CLAS's second annual Faculty and Staff Opening Meeting, and to the 2005-2006 academic year.   At this second gathering, we face a different College of Liberal Arts and Sciences than at the first: larger, more determinate, more unified, but still very much at the beginning of our story.  At this point last year, we were facing inchoate, if promising, prospects; this year, we can point to concrete accomplishments, and to specific challenges we have accepted through an inclusive process of strategic planning.  At this point last year, we were just launching our effort to design faculty governance in the College; this year we have four elected committees, all of which have already met and are getting down to work.  At this point last year, we were preparing for one more year of doing personnel, curriculum, and other key functions in different ways in different parts of the College; this year we are transitioning to processes that seek to incorporate best practices from wherever they might be found into a unified, fair system.  Ironically, all that means that in some ways this year is a year of more extensive and fundamental transitions than last year.  The College's associate deans and I are excited about collaborating on the whole range of issues and initiatives that the committees will choose to address.

This morning I want to talk with you about some transitions  in the personnel and structure of the College office, about five essentials that are of particular importance during the transitions immediately ahead of us, and just briefly about how, AS teachers of the arts and sciences, YOU are essential-and as a consequence, how you must perform an essential task in your classes this year.

The first of two kinds of transitions I want you to know about comprise some transitions in the College Office.  As many of you know, Professor Neal Rogness has already returned to the Statistics faculty after a 7 year stint of service in the Science and Math Office, and last year as Interim Associate Dean of CLAS.  Neal is happy as a clam to be back teaching and directing the Statistics Consulting Center.  I happen to know that he has invested extra energy in updating his Fall courses, and Im guessing his seminar in Death and Dying won't ever have been as lively as it will be this year.  Neal's service on the College level hasn't ended, as well find out a little later, but for now I'd like to thank you, Neal, for your many excellent contributions. (cascades of applause for Neal!)

We will be celebrating service to Grand Valley again this fall when Julianne Vanden Wyngaard steps out of her associate deanship and into phased retirement on October 3.  There will be time to compose the encomia for her decades of excellence in various roles.  But let me say this, Julianne: you have been a wonderful teacher for me as I've begun to learn about the history and character of Grand Valley.  It has been particularly important that I had an Associate Dean from the Arts to lean on.  As you know, Julianne, I am a Dean who, unapologetically, wants to place special emphasis on excellence in the performing arts, in part for a very public-oriented reason.  We have many constituencies who are unlikely to be able to know excellence when they see it in molecular biology or cognitive psychology or in so many of the other intellectual specialties at which our faculty sparkle.  But even these publics, many of them crucial to our future, can more easily hear and see excellence in the performing and visual arts.  Our colleagues in Music, Dance, Art & Design, Photography, Theatre, Film and Video do us all valuable service, by reflecting in the quality and intensity of their performances the quality and intensity that our faculty bring to all their varied enterprises.  As Professor Stieler's performance may be this morning's most persuasive evidence, the arts are essential in the ways they speak to us all-essential to Grand Valley and to CLAS in the ways they represent our excellence to all our constituencies.

But I misspeak: I mean the performance of Professor Stieler AND Dean Vanden Wyngaard.  Whether accompanying a vocal performance or making the carillons sing, Julianne has been a wonderful colleague and representative of Grand Valley.  Those of you who were around this summer know that Julianne hosted a conference of international carillonneurs in June, and the respect with which she was treated by people from all over the world was evidence of her international standing.  But I also want to praise Julianne specifically for her excellence in the College Office.  Knowledgeable, compassionate, a nimble problem solver with an unerring nose for detecting foolishness, she has been essential to the smoothness of transition we've enjoyed as a College.  We will have our opportunities to extol Julianne, but for now, let me just say both on behalf of the College and personally, "thank you," for all you've done and the excellence with which you've done it (repeated waves of applause for Julianne).

And thank you for the special transition you're now providing-for Julianne will not be alone over the next few weeks.  Last spring we did an associate dean search, looked at candidates from far and wide, and it turned out that the strongest two were both from Grand Valley.  Our selection makes me remember the notion that a test for deans is whether they surround themselves with associates who are smarter and abler than they are (as easy as that task may sound!).  When you get to know our new associate dean, Maria Cimitile, who moves to the College Office from the Philosophy Department and experience as chair of FSBC, I believe you'll judge me to have passed at least this test.  Dean Cimitile will be, in effect, "job shadowing" Dean Vanden Wyngaard until the transition of October 3, when she'll be able to hit the ground running.

Maria comes into a somewhat reconfigured office, reconfigured both functionally and physically.  On the advice of the Unit Heads, the "cluster AD" model has been shifted.  Instead our associate deans will be defined by the functions they serve.  First we have an Associate Dean for Faculty, and I'm very pleased that Gary Stark has agreed to stay on and serve a three year term in that role.  He can't be here today because he's taking his son off to college at Kenyon.  But let me say just this word about him.  We all know that this summer was smoother in providing seats to incoming students that any in recent memory.  Students were not leaving orientation with half a schedule, and departments were not being continuously hammerlocked into redoing and then re-redoing their entire staffing plan.  Much of the credit for that accomplishment belongs to Gary, and manifests the values with which he does his job: his deep sensitivity to both departmental and student needs, his broad understanding of the curriculum and the options and alternatives it provides, and his commitment to all his colleagues.  Agreeing to take a three year term as Associate Dean for Faculty was a generous act, in that he had to give up opportunities for himself in his discipline.  So I'd ask you to express your thanks to our colleague Gary when you see him.   I know he will serve the College with intelligence and integrity. 

We will also have an Associate Dean for Professional Development and Administration, about which more in a minute.  But first let me describe Professor Cimitile's upcoming role of Associate Dean for Students and Curriculum.  At a time when NCA accreditation is not far off, a time when our strategic planning has focused CLAS's top priorities on the quality of undergraduate education in the liberal arts and sciences, this is a big and challenging role to take on, and I'm so glad Maria has been willing to accept it.  The Associate Dean for Students and Curriculum has to be learning constantly about the programs in the College and also the interdisciplinary opportunity lurking in the interstices between departments.  I ask you to be as generous and patient with Maria as you've been with me, in helping her learn about your degrees, your courses, and the ways in which you aspire to improve undergraduate education.

As we've shifted functions, we've also shifted locations for the associate deans' office.  The upstairs suite in Lake Superior Hall was beautiful, but I was embarrassed several times last year that the second floor is not wheelchair accessible.  What I said last year about diversity, I meant very sincerely, including my own commitment to accessibility.  We  decided, when Writing vacated the 101-107 suite in LSH for their new digs in Lake Ontario Hall, that we would move downstairs, and we are now unpacking in our new offices, overlooking the Shakespeare Garden, a suite that IS wheelchair accessible and more convenient for students and faculty alike.

By the way, you'll notice a shuffle in the staff who support the College, and there are some faces in new places  that you'll learn to recognize.  Linda Noel has moved to important new duties working with Dean Stark in the Padnos Office-we're really excited to have you take on these challenges, so welcome, Linda, to the "uptown" side of the Ravines!  And you'll see a sunny new face as the secretary in the Lake Superior Suite: Jennifer Glaab comes to us with years of experience at Davenport, and I hope you introduce yourself to her.  We're lucky to have you, Jennifer, welcome!  Jennifer will be working with the two associate deans to be housed there: the Associate Dean for Students and Curriculum, and -let me introduce- the Interim Associate Dean for Professional Development and Administration, Donna Larson. 

Donna is well known to Science and Math Faculty, since she served with sustained success as Dean Kindschis Associate Dean, handling many of the same functions as she's assigned to this fall.   The Professional Development of Faculty is a crucial priority for CLAS.  We are-because of the years of bountiful hiring in response to rapid expansion of student numbers-a disproportionately young faculty.  Thus we must make extra efforts to get the people whom we spend so much time, and effort to recruit to Grand Valley, off to a good start, and to help them flourish in serving our mission.  (Along those lines, by the way, the College has taken a first step on a long road toward equity.  While some departments have more funds, a significant number of departments had as little as $350 per faculty member budgeted for their development.  This summer, mainly through painful internal reallocation by both the College and our departments, we were able to lift the per capita minimum across the College to $600.  Over the years I hope to find the resources to continue raising this floor.  By the way, there were two other floors we more modestly raised this summer, again through the internal reallocations that reorganization made possible: we were able to raise the salaries of returning Visitors by 1.75%, and of returning Affiliates by 2.5%.  I believe that the work of faculty who are not on a tenure line is very important.  We need to find further ways, within our means, to recognize that every  one of us, part time and full time, at every rank, contributes in a way that must not be undervalued or exploited). 

I mention money matters because they are instrumentally important at a time when the very institution of the public university is itself going through major transitions.  So it is relevant that another function of this Associate Dean for Professional Development and Administration will be to assist me in publicity and fundraising.  Coming off a year when we received our first endowed chair-the Stuart and Barbara Padnos Chair in Art and Design-this will be an ever more important part of how higher education pays its bills, and how Grand Valley will keep its forward momentum through times of decelerating state funding.

Dean Larson, too, will be launching into phased retirement after this semester, and so we'll have another transition:  we will have a search this fall for an Associate Dean for Faculty Development and Administration to succeed Donna.  John Constantelos of Political Science has agreed to chair this committee, which will be kicking off its activities after Labor Day.  We will, however, be working on the job advertisement before then, and well be happy to share information in unofficial form with anyone who might be interested in this essential position-I'd love a deep and diverse pool!  Given the nature of the position, not to mention the high quality of last spring's pool, our first try at filling this position will be through an internal search.

There are some other important faculty committees laboring in our behalf.  Dean Vanden Wyngaard is chairing a Diversity Task Force whose charge is to report to the College on October 3.  These faculty have been so generous as to continue meeting throughout the summer.  I must tell you, I've had a couple advance peeks at their work, and I believe their recommendations, and insights about propagating best practices already in place, will bring transitions that move us a long way toward our diversity goals. 

An Advising Task Force has been working too.  Coordinating with Associate Vice Provost Nancy Giardina, the Task Force is assessing how to propagate advising centers like the SMART Center across the College.  Led by Professor Michael Ott, they are charged to report to the College by the end of the Fall semester, and to cooperate with the University's larger advising initiatives.

And one new faculty and staff committee is beginning its work.  Under the guidance of Neal Rogness, a Learning Space Task Force is charged to investigate our needs for faculty research space, and space to work "hands on" with our students.  This group will have interestingly interdisciplinary work to do, because the College has learning space of all kinds, from the performing arts to facilities and equipment special to communication and anthropology and psychology, to language labs (including our new Spanish Writing Center) to the science labs in Padnos.   If our students are to learn in hands-on experiential ways, if our faculty are to continue to learn so that the education they offer in 2015 not be the Biology or English or Sociology of 1995, we need to understand our space needs, and have an array of projects available, whatever size chunks of capital improvement money the state may make available for us in the future.

In support of faculty learning, there is something new on the CLAS website which I hope you find useful: a searchable database of faculty research interests.  I've played around in the database, and it promises to be a real support for interdisciplinarity.  Neal Rogness began compiling this when he was still in the College Office, and Dean Stark has helped bring it to fruition, and for their work, they deserve our thanks.

Having mentioned some of the transitions lying ahead for CLAS this year, let me offer a stabilizing sentiment: a time of transition is a good time to focus on what's essential.  Many of our strategic priorities are quite familiar, but this year a few have renewed emphasis.  Let me mention five essentials that we'll be especially focusing on this year. 

One is simply finding the time and space for listening to one another, and that listening    begins with me: now that the urgencies of reorganization have come under a little more control and we have elected governance to help us worry about them, I am adopting an old Grand Valley tradition.  I will hold open office hours when people might have time for a conversation on whatever topic they choose.  More details on this will be forthcoming.  Of course, all of the faculty and staff committees I've mentioned provide me further occasions to hear detail and understand nuance.  I'll also continue to accept invitations to department meetings.  And we will continue our CLAS advisory committees-staff, emeriti, and students-and I will be soliciting your help in repopulating those three committees.

A second essential is Faculty Development.   Multiplying the opportunities at every career stage to continue developing as a teacher-scholar is essential for CLAS's future. The interdisciplinarity and collaboration Ive already mentioned are essential to developing a vibrant faculty.  But we also need to work to assure that opportunities for support are distributed in a way that is rationally related to strategic goals, and equally accessible  to everyone-and it's fair to say that, in these emphases, we are growing out of our smaller-school entrepreneurial past.  We know that when individuals were  the only ones around GVSU who were able to perform tasks needed for the University, they were cut individual deals, and some of them-the deals, not the individuals-have stayed sedimented in place after the task lost its utility (and even, in some cases, after the faculty member stopped doing the task!).  But we now have a large faculty, and we know that faculty develop with the most vitality when resources are aligned with the needs and objectives of the College, those needs and objectives that we did such serious work to define collegially in our strategic planning last year.  For us to offer faculty the best array of opportunities within finite resources, while still meeting our students' needs and our collegial obligations, we must work to bring greater equity and transparency to these functions.  It is essential that EVERYONE have a fair chance at demonstrating their excellence at goals we commonly hold--and a fair chance at the limited dollars available at any one time to support it. 

Third, if we truly aspire to offer what I called last year "the best undergraduate education in the liberal arts and sciences among all the Michigan public universities," we must submit ourselves to thoughtful comparisons.  That is to say, Benchmarking is more  essential than it has ever been.  This is an implication of the "positive restlessness" that Jillian Kinzie described at the FTLC teaching conference yesterday, the restlessness to keep getting better at who we are and what we do.  Weve begun sharing best practices internally, and I'm sure our governance committees will sustain that trend.  The thoughtful examination of the "aspirational peers" identified in the 2005 Course Capacity Inventory is the next big step for us to take.  The irony is that benchmarking the practices-and excellences-of competing places is essential for us to preserve our own distinctiveness.

Fourth, Grand Valley faces an NCA accreditation in 2008-2009.  The strongest part of our argument must be evidence that our students actually learn the subject matter and skills of the liberal arts and sciences.  We must begin, this year, to discuss and develop modes of  Learning Outcome Assessment  that are genuinely responsive to what we teach.  To paraphrase slightly the words of a President I rarely find myself invoking about educational matters, we must answer the question, "is our students learning?"  But the challenge is, we must find much more sensible, humane, and real  measures than that President has chosen.  I believe we can do that-and Dean Cimitile will be taking a lead in that project.

Finally, as you know, the Provost has promised to lead a discussion this year on     workload .  This is a discussion to which we must bring the sensibility of the liberal arts and sciences.   Let us see to it-let us take leadership in insuring-that in the course of this conversation, the primary way that "workload" is defined neither managerially nor entrepreneurially, but rather,collegially.   Let us teach the university how to envision workload as a way of coordinating not only work assignments but evaluations and rewards within the needs and opportunities that we have collegially defined in our strategic planning.  Let us, the faculty of CLAS, actively influence the character of this discussion!

This year we will often think about how better to operationalize these essentials-listening, faculty development, benchmarking, assessment and workload-for our students and faculty.  But as we think about what is essential FOR us, at the cusp of a  bright new year, we must remember how WE are essential for others.  In some ways, our value is obvious whenever we tell our stories-the story of how our colleague in Philosophy Michael deWilde is bringing the classics into the workplace-and into prisons.  The story of how our colleagues Deb Herrington and Ellen Yezierski are helping high school chemistry teachers integrate inquiry into their curriculum.  The story of how Geography professor Elena Lioubimtseva  is working with NASA to assess how the vast institutional changes in the former Soviet Union have impacted the Eurasian grain belt.    But not everything about our distinctive value is so obvious.  We may need to interrupt a dominant discourse that sometimes has served our short term interest a discourse about the utility of the liberal arts and sciences.

You know as well as I do the statistics about the utility of the education we offer-about how many Fortune 500 CEOs are graduates of the liberal arts and sciences, about how employers are looking for the skills of analysis, communication and collaboration that are marks of our graduates, and so on.   But to proclaim our real value to say that the liberal arts and sciences that we teach are essential arts for living goes beyond what society, at any point in time, has the wit (and the heart) to value in enterprise and commerce.   As rhetorician Marshall Gregory puts it, "the utilitarian vision of education views students not in terms of what they may become as moral, civic, and personal agents, but in terms of how they may serve commercial, bureaucratic, or procedural aims that all too often have nothing to do with human flourishing at all."  What we do in CLAS is essential, but not merely in its job-related utility.  As Professor Stieler's song so beautifully framed it, we colorize the world.  What we do is essential because it provides our students hope-a very distinctive hope, publicly and personally. 

Our students face a public life in which huge problems continue to ramify, substantially unaddressed (what are we going to do with social security? How can we reconfigure health care to make it more accessible and affordable? What shall we do to meet our energy needs?).  Instead citizens are invited to "take sides" that are drawn by the crudest of slogans, and to take part in a politics dedicated NOT to collaborating on solutions to urgent common issues, but to setting people against one another.  What we do in an education in the liberal arts and sciences is essential to giving our students glimpses of what a different public life could be, a life driven by reasons, where knowledge is provisional and susceptible to disproof, and where thinking beyond the slogan is not like falling off the edge of the world, but rather beginning the necessary process of remaking it.  I like to imagine that our students yearn for a public life animated by understanding,  integrity and eloquence, its energy focused on shared solutions to real problems.   But to acquire many of the essentials for such a public life, they depend on us.

Our students face models of private life where taste need not and cannot be educated, where one opinion can be no better or less arbitrary than another; where the value of individual human life gives way to sheer consumption, where the only idea of The Good is an ever more rapidly turning kaleidoscope of material goods, every fashion giving way to the next, with no vision of durable value-and all this taking place in a culture that can be so vulgar and violent as to suggest that the value of any human voice is entirely determined by its volume.  What we do in CLAS is essential to giving our students glimpses of what a more humane and generous private life could be, a life more responsible to truth, more open to beauty, more conducive to human flourishing.

As we begin a new semester, then, it's good to reflect on the dignity of our shared vocation.  Teaching in the liberal arts and sciences provides hope in a world increasingly in need of it.  But if our calling has dignity, it also has urgency.  As Marshall Gregory writes, "we need to make conversations with our students about the overall aims of their education a clear and distinct PART of their education, so that we can help them learn how to think more comprehensively and less materialistically about the education into which they are pouring so much money and energy." 

So I am asking every one of you to do exactly that, more consciously and more explicitly this fall.  In those moments when you try to give them the Big Picture about how your course fits into their major and their education, I'm asking that you "zoom out" even further, and talk with your students this semester about how the higher order concepts or the practical intellectual skills developed in your class reach beyond the stated course goals to larger hopes.  I ask you to talk with them about how the capacities for analysis, synthesis, reflective integration and application to new circumstances-what legal scholar James Boyd White aptly calls "translation"-that you teach leads them toward a hope for communities that can deliberate and collaborate on real issues for a common good, a good defined more complexly than "what's in it for me, right now?";   the hope of a personal life guided by the unbiased and unflinching search for what is true, and uplifted by what is beautiful.  I ask you to have this sort of conversation at least once in each of your classes this semester -about how your course in the liberal arts and sciences teaches essentials for humane living.  I will ask unit heads to spread this request, and to have a conversation about it at an early departmental faculty meeting.  I'd take it as a personal favor if you would encourage the person teaching down the hall and the person teaching in your room the next class period to do it too-and perhaps to have a collegial conversation about how to talk to students intelligibly and persuasively about that.   Let us have a year of talking about the content and character of what we teach, and how it has salient benefits and ennobling purposes beyond tests, grades, programs and degrees.

Finally, on this occasion of fresh beginnings, I want to congratulate you for what you do, and for doing it well, and persistently, and inventively.  There is great dignity in what we do-especially at a public university,  open access to which by all sorts of traditional and nontraditional students makes our work occasionally more challenging, but potentially more transformative.  We are privileged -we are lucky-to begin together another year, to have another chance to share with our students what others shared with us: an education essential in every one of life's transitions; an education in the liberal arts and sciences, the essential arts for living. 

I look forward to talking with you about it over lunch under the tent.

Page last modified March 9, 2018