We Are a Ship, Not a Clown Car: Clashing Metaphors for Higher Education in Economic Turbulence

Frederick J. Antczak
Dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences

April 1, 2009


On March 9, President Haas had the opportunity to testify before the Michigan House Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education.  He reminded them then that “higher education is a public good,” worthy of public support; and he recalled a lesson from his Coast Guard days: “[a]s a good Coastie or Laker knows…never cut your engines with storms around.”  In a year of great accomplishment and considerable challenge, there were competing metaphors for understanding the situation and role of higher education in a time of economic turbulence.  I want to talk with you today about the events in CLAS this year that buoy up this metaphor—and the university—in times that have, thank goodness, affected GVSU far less than other institutions, but may call for shared sacrifice before the storm blows out.

This academic year began in a state of anxiety about one thing which came out very well.  Recall the opening weeks.  Thousands of preparations were being made. NCA was coming and we were going to be ready.  As a result, our vitality was clearly and convincingly communicated to the accreditation team, and we were granted a clean bill of health, a full decade to embark on our current duties, unanchored to further reporting, with the mission to explore the not-altogether-familiar seas of “assessment.”  Meanwhile, our regular responsibilities would not wait; you know that saying about time and the tide.  We taught, we attended to our committees, we launched new buildings and the CLAS Academic Advising Center, we applied for an unprecedented number of grants, we did some astonishingly nimble turns to meet sudden needs for curricular changes, we advised our students, we began to assess, and we did the thousands of other things—some familiar, some absolutely new—that make us Grand Valley. 

But while we passed the trial we had expected with flying colors, events in the financial world wrought havoc with public higher education all across the country.  Economic loss not seen since the Great Depression buffeted us on all sides.  Tax revenues are billions of dollars below previous levels in Michigan, and that is already affecting higher education.  For months, I daresay, only the bravest among us opened their TIAA-CREF reports. But perhaps the only thing more alarming than the financial losses, and the fragile uncertainty about whether we’ve hit bottom, were the proposed solutions for education coming from certain quarters. 

United States Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a former U.S. Secretary of Education and president of the University of Tennessee, warned university leaders recently that they need to reduce the cost of attending college or risk the same rejection by their customers that the American automobile industry has suffered.   Senator Alexander suggested offering a three-year baccalaureate course reducing the cost of attending college by one-fourth and the time it takes to graduate by as much as one-third.  As Alexander explained his thinking, “The Detroit car companies kept building gas guzzlers in the 1980s when they should have been figuring out how to build smaller, lower-cost cars that were more fuel efficient. They didn’t and the foreign competition did, and you can see where things are now – today we are bailing them out. ..It will not be easy to produce a low-cost, high-quality three-year curriculum for a college degree but now is the time to try.”  And last week, Cornerstone University announced three year degrees in business and journalism.

I would not deny that there are a few students, a very few, might be able to finish an undergraduate degree in three years, but mechanisms for serving them already exist. For most students, though, we must resist Senator Alexander’s metaphor: we aren’t the auto industry.  And our work absolutely, positively can’t be thought of in this circumscribed, frantic way, as if taking on the comically tight turning circle and stripped down interior of a clown car.  Life-changing education takes time to sink in; it’s not like applying makeup and a costume, a big nose and huge shoes you just put on for a laugh.  Students need to ask questions and dive deeper, to integrate their knowledge and reach wider.  Alexander’s metaphor not only fails to serve most students; it actively harms them, and the society that needs them, now more than ever.  We are not ”training” anyone; we are educating citizens, visionaries, leaders, and human beings.  We must convey this mission by the quality of our students’ education, and by the way we work together, even in this time of economic turbulence.


I don’t have to explain to this audience what is to be lost if we stripped down the liberal education we offer.  It would be an education unrecognizable by the standards of our mission.  To fulfill that mission in more demanding times, we must do, and we HAVE been doing, more to help our students to apprehend its value.  In fact, there’s been so much good work happening on this front in 2009-2010 that partly as an answer to Senator Alexander, I ask everyone to send us more examples of how we are teaching liberal education: how students were brought to understand calculus and its applications in a world with an increasing rate of change, appreciate fantastic realism as a political statement in a fantastic time, or have that breakthrough rhetorical moment when they realized that arguments have audiences.  Please take time after grades are in this term to send me examples.   Help us show how we are teaching, and making our students able to articulate and actuate, the values of a liberal education. At this pivotal moment, when explaining what we do is so essential, we want to do something special with our “Teaching Liberal Education” page, and your unit deserves to be represented.  Of course, ever-ambitious for us, I have ideas about how to use this information for much more than a web page. 

You know, we have already met and exceeded some of the industrial benchmarks sometimes applied to education.  This year showed how the education we offer is “nimble” and “flexible”; nimble, as with the robust Pharmacology track we invented on short notice, and flexible, as with the gorgeously interdisciplinary Archaeology minor, or the advising “gazetteers” that faculty have been trying out.  In different terms, we are responding to President Obama’s call to build a community of engaged citizens, as with our range of internships that now stretch from Anthropology to Stats, from Bio to Writing, and which, thanks to the tireless work of our colleague Kevin DenDulk, now include a whole set of internships in D.C. and beyond, in a new affiliation with the Washington Center.  Moreover we realize that bottlenecks and boondoggles increasingly just weigh us all down, make us list and founder.  Sacrifice and a broader view is necessary—it is not acceptable, it is not survivable if, realizing the boat has taken some water, any of us expect everyone else to bail without lending our hand.  

We’ve recognized this need for collegial collaboration and have been working on it all year.  Here are four ways:

  • The mechanism of the Out of the Box events did great work in identifying processes that waste faculty time.  We’re now at work on eliminating or mitigating them. 
  • Our college Grassroots Inclusion Implementation Task Force—CLAS GrIT—is identifying impediments to an environment of equity at the University, and already has made some significant changes and connections.
  • Even as a wave of stimulus package grant opportunities washes over us, we’ve figured out ways of making your access to funding more targeted to what you do and easier to access, thanks to the work of triage and communication done by Christine Chamberlain and Monica Johnstone.  In that connection, I want to take a moment especially to commend Monica Johnstone for all she has done as College Director of Communications and Advancement this year.  Whether it’s been improving the website for your use, or publicizing your achievements, or getting you better information about opportunities, Monica has had your back all year, and I ask you to recognize her great work in your behalf.
  • Finally, your generous support for the CLAS Fund for Excellence, along with some really heartening alumni giving, has enabled us to support a list of things we might not have been able to afford, including sending four students to participate in a two week Inauguration Seminar, and attend the Inauguration; helping to send a student to the UN’s Women and Gender Studies seminar; inviting Cicely Tyson talk on campus; supporting the Modern Languages and Literatures’ French Festival and the English Department’s T.S. Eliot Conference; helping to send Jonathan Hodge on his scholarly trip to Kenya—and, I’m relieved to say, bringing him back!


We should always resist, it seems to me, the impulse to surrender to the latest notion of what the market craves.  While, certainly, trade schools are necessary, an excellent liberal arts university should not abandon its mission to become one.  What Senator Alexander has not recognized, oddly given the education-related jobs he’s held, is something we just can’t allow ourselves to forget in our own practice.  We do not teach people just to fit into the entry level positions that happen to be open when they graduate (and that’s a very good thing for the class of ’09!); we teach them to think, integrate, communicate, and to dream new dreams—which is the much better long-term strategy, not just for entry level employment but for a life’s work, not just to make a living but to make a life.  Take our Alumni Board for examples of how this works: Mary Kramer majored in art and is now the Executive Director of the Child and Family Resource Council.  Edward Cardenas majored in International Relations and is Communications Director for Michigan congressperson Candice Miller.  Mitri Zainea majored in History and is now an elementary school principal in Muskegon.  Patrick Fischer majored in History and now is president of his own manufacturing firm.  Many on our board are younger, so I’m not sure we can see their full vocational trajectories from this point.  But since we educated them here, in the liberal arts and sciences, as Tiger Woods would say I like their chances.  They illustrate how education should not merely fit a person to an existing job, but should be life-changing, character-forming, and vocation-finding.

Speaking at the Council of Colleges of Arts & Sciences conference, CCAS president Matthew Moen remembered Benjamin Franklin’s thought about the cost and value of education: “If a man empties his purse into his head, no one can take it from him.”   Moen argued that “true education is not a painless credentialing process, but rather a matter of profound personal struggle, where students must read, write, question, and think…and …grapple [with books] that are the antithesis of painless education.” (CCAS Newsletter, Nov./Dec. 2008, p. 6).  I believe that at GVSU we provide an environment where this grappling takes place safely but energetically.   We continue, of course, to have the obligation to remove unnecessary obstacles to their timely graduation, and we’ve already done a great deal, we’ve led the university in streamlining prerequisites.  But on this issue, what we think and what the public knows about us will have at least some points of significant divergence.  We must navigate that difference by sustaining excellence in what we do, given the resources we have at hand—not as an abstraction, not what we think we may deserve, but what together we are given to share and use for the common interdisciplinary good of our students and colleagues.

And so I’m happy to report that despite the economic turbulence, through your efforts many things in CLAS are truly better than ever. 

  • We had enough alumni success stories to overflow two issues of our new Alumni E-newsletter.
  • Our students won just about every McNair Scholarship available. 
  • Your grant writing is at an all time high. 
  • Cell and Molecular Biology and AWRI have achieved their goals to become academic departments in their own right. 
  • Our achievements were celebrated on the pages of The Forum, the Grand Valley Magazine and on the GVSU Web site to an even higher degree than last year. 
  • The press picked up on stories such as Bopi Biddanda’s fascinating work on sinkholes at the bottom of Lake Huron. 
  • John Kilbourne’s trials of exercise balls in the classroom was seemingly everywhere in papers and on web sites all over the country.  I wonder why he suggested we have them for the Dean’s speech?
  • Our faculty won awards for teaching and service and sustainability and the arts. 
  • Papers were given in Berlin and Paris and Brazil—by our students as well as our faculty.
  • Dave Leonard was awarded a $195,000 grant from NIH.
  • Speaking of students and faculty, our films won multiple awards in multiple venues, and our artists performed everywhere from Hawaii to China. 
  • The Regional Math and Science Center held GVSU’s 25th anniversary Science Olympiad with help from many faculty and staff.  History Day is rising towards a similar trajectory.
  • Mark Schwartz of Anthropology lent his scholarly perspective to a series on the History Channel, “Battles, B.C.”  Blood, gore, and anthropology; who could ask for more?

That’s just some of the more glamorous news.  Departments also completed self-studies and major curricular reviews.  Many of you handled daunting numbers of tenure and promotion applications WHILE searching for the 49 positions we were ultimately granted.  Which is to say, you not only kept the ship afloat, you made it simultaneously bigger, sleeker and more seaworthy. 

And, we are here today to celebrate the accomplishments of sabbaticals—the work that you do, in one sense to recharge and renew yourself.  In another sense, as we can clearly see here today, we all benefit.  And so, in a not very long run, do our students!  I hope the Sabbatical Showcase teaches you something about another field, and that you meet a colleague you hadn’t known before.  Not everyone takes their sabbatical when first eligible, and not all are immediately ready to unveil what they are working on, so this is just a sample; but a score of your colleagues have given you a wonderful indication of the range of what is possible. 

In the Faculty Features in the CLAS Acts newsletters this year, we saw how invigoratingly the possible can be explored.  The work of Justin Adams shows how much we can learn about conditions and species’ die-offs from tiny bone fragments; the painstaking data collection about vegetation and nutrient synthesis that Bob Hollister does on hands and knees in the arctic helps us see what is really happening to our climate; Melissa Morison elicits the story of the rise and fall of civilizations from the shards of old jars in a certain corner of Corinth.  Their scholarship is disparate, but all three subject very precise questions to informed inquiry and analysis—and yield lessons with wide-reaching consequences.  They tell us how a species or a people fared in challenging, or even in desperate times.  These are stories about adaptability, about finding, or failing to find, the survival opportunity in crisis.  We should take bearings for our future course from them.

And as conclusive proof that we’re headed in the right direction, consider the winner of this year’s student Niemeyer Award.  From a very impressive field emerged a 3.92 physics and math major in the Honors College who began research under the REU program—as a freshman.  She’s already presenting her research at multiple conferences.  I don’t know if, upon graduation, she’ll choose graduate studies in Physics or the Peace Corps, but I know we are very proud of her.  I’m grateful, too, that she’s also been a member of the CLAS Student Advisory Board.  Her name is Paige Lampen, and she stands for all the wonderful students you’ve mentored to achieve their full potential.

So, shipmates, I think we should be very proud of the voyage we have been taking together this year.  I invite you to meet some more of your colleagues, try the refreshments and be inspired by the work on display here today.  I hope that your summer is a beautiful, relaxing, productive sail through the seas of inquiry that restore you.  For we are needed at our best, all the more needed in turbulent times.  In our state, for our students, we serve our community best by NOT becoming a clown car.  Even if all else is the sea, we must be the ship.




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