2014 Provost Spring Address
May 15, 2014
Bethami Dobkin, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs
Thank you for adjusting your schedules, and carving out time at a very busy time of year to join me for dinner tonight. Your presence means a lot to me…. I’m proud and gratified to remain among you. And I’m exceptionally well supported, particularly by the people who run my life: Gloria, Jan, Laure and Robert. Please join me in thanking them.
We had a tremendous year during our Sesquicentennial, with multiple high-profile events, a presidential search, and incredible energy and excitement for the future. The momentum continued into this year, as we broke records in faculty and student achievements and in retention and graduation rates. Our undergraduate first-to-second-year retention rate has hit 90 percent, and our four-year graduation rate has increased from a 10-year low of 49 percent for the class entering in 2006 to over 60 percent last year. This spring, we are on track to have our largest graduating classes in both our graduate and undergraduate programs. It’s been great.
At the same time, we’ve been in seemingly perpetual transition. Among other things, we’ve inaugurated a new President, said farewell to two Cabinet members, Michael Beseda and Keith Brant, and welcomed new administrators, such as our Vice Provost for Enrollment and Communications, Hernan Bucheli, and our Dean of Students, Evette Castillo Clark. We’ve continued to improve our technology infrastructure due to Peter Greco and his ITS team. We’ve neared full implementation of the new core curriculum and Collegiate Seminar, launched new graduate programs, achieved AACSB accreditation, and completed the first stage in WASC reaffirmation of accreditation. We hosted the California Forum for Diversity in Graduate Education. Faculty and students continued to generate scholarship and receive awards, from collaborative research with undergraduate students to doctoral student and faculty participation in the inaugural meeting of the Action Research Network of the Americas. Joint programming increased under the able direction of Mary McCall in Faculty Development. Both the Honors Program, led by David Bird, and the High Potential Program, led by Tracy Pascua Dea and Gloria Sosa, experienced significant expansion. Renewed national interest in the sciences has led to overfilled science courses and labs. And, there are currently over a hundred faculty and staff working at breakneck speed to advance strategic planning. No wonder everyone looks so tired.
We’re exhausted, but we know that we have to prepare now for an uncertain future. Among the focal points that the strategic planning effort has already underscored: the increasingly high cost of education, the enduring features of our mission, and the possibilities for academic distinction.
We know college has gotten too expensive for too many students, and we’re committed to keeping it within reach, but no one seems to agree about why costs have risen or how to control them.
Since the 1970s, federally subsidized loans gradually replaced federal grants, family incomes and public investment in higher education dropped, and “borrowing to pay for college took off.” Sandy Baum of the Urban Institute opines that “the drop in public investment has been the single biggest reason” for the increase in college tuition (qtd. in Sanchez, www.npr.org). And while many people like to assign additional responsibility for escalating costs to whatever they deem least important for higher education––administrators, staff, coaches, student facilities and services––student needs and expectations have continued to rise, as has the complexity of a higher education environment beholden to accreditors, federal regulators, the health care industry, insurance companies and legal fees. Add those to the many things that many of us embrace, such as more full-time faculty, higher salaries, more support staff, and improved technological infrastructure, and you quickly have some ideas about why costs have risen.
The growing awareness of and concern about student debt and high costs of education, coupled with the erosion of income for many people, has already affected most private colleges and universities in the country. The declining enrollments in higher education have begun to arrive on the West Coast. Many of the private universities in our region––Mills, Dominican, Notre Dame de Namur, Holy Names, and even WCC peers like Gonzaga––are currently advertising to high school admissions counselors that they still have openings for next fall’s entering class (www.nacacnet.org). Our own recruiting has continued aggressively as well. States to the east of us, with declining numbers of high school graduates, are recruiting heavily in our backyard. Our graduate and professional programs increasingly face online competitors and high-profile satellite campuses from institutions across the country.
In response to increasing competition and growing concerns about costs, we must demonstrate that what we do is a worthwhile investment for our students as well as contributing to the common good, we must distinguish ourselves in the higher education landscape, and we must rethink some of the ways that we deploy our resources.
Many of us who are faculty received our terminal degrees from large, public research universities. We’ve come here, drawn by a belief in the power of education, committed to service for the common good, wanting to emulate the access to education provided by public universities, and sharing the commitment to social justice embodied in Jean Baptiste de la Salle. His canonization is celebrated today, May 15, by Christian Brothers worldwide. In invoking him, Brother Armin Luistro said during our recent Convocation, “With great depth and wisdom, (de la Salle) understood the power of education to liberate humans by opening minds to new knowledge, touching hearts through relationships, and nurturing souls through the word of God” (www.stmarys-ca.edu). The transformative possibility of education is one reason why many of us have devoted our lives to it.
At the same time, our students need the experiences and opportunities to translate their degrees into meaningful work. I’ll quote Marc Joseph from the Huffington Post, though it probably won’t be news to you: “A college degree is worth a million dollars more than a high school degree over your lifetime. Being well educated is priceless” (www.huffingtonpost.com). We pride ourselves on creating that priceless education. And increasingly, there’s compelling evidence that we needn’t substitute “great lives” for “great jobs.”
I’m referring now to the recent “Great Jobs, Great Lives” Gallup-Purdue Index Report (2014) on the relationship between college experiences and workplace engagement. The study goes beyond job and graduate student placements to assess college outcomes and looks at “well-being …such as finding fulfillment in daily work and interactions, having strong social relationships and access to the resources people need, feeling financially secure, being physically healthy, and taking part in a true community." The Gallup report adds to “well-being” the interaction of “engagement,” intellectual and emotional connection work, to see whether “the experiences (students) had in college… promoted a well-lived life." The experiences that have a profound impact on students’ lives, that predict whether they are likely to thrive personally, professionally, and in relationships, are those found right here: professors who cared about them, “made them excited about learning, and encouraged them to pursue their dreams”; the opportunity to apply what they were learning in class to jobs or internships; working on semester-long projects, and active involvement in extracurricular activities and organizations.
And indeed, our strength lies in that integration of faith and reason, liberation of the mind, and shared inquiry brought to bear on both the greatest questions of human existence and those of individual purpose and career aspirations. We must ensure not only that we offer such educational experiences to students, but also that they have the personal and financial capacity to take advantage of them. And all parts of our mission, taken separately, are necessary elements of our distinctiveness, but they aren’t sufficient. Our distinction lies in the way these elements, and our work as an educational community, come together to focus on social justice and the common good.
We’re swimming upstream on this one, as the pressures on higher education to become increasingly individualistic, competitive, cost-effective and materialistic increase the difficulty of carving out academic distinction based on “self-reflection, open dialogue, and thoughtful analysis of alternative perspectives." At the same time, there are signs that, in addition to increasing earning potential, this kind of academic distinction is precisely what students seek. Pope Francis writes in The Joy of the Gospel, “We should recognize that despite the present crisis of commitment and communal relationships, many young people are making common cause before the problems of our world…. (they) call us to renewed and expansive hope, for they represent new directions for humanity and open us up to the future, lest we cling to nostalgia for structures and customs which are no longer life-giving in today’s world."
“Making common cause before the problems of the world” is a way to talk about what we do as well as how and why we do it, and it resonates firmly with statements made this past year by President Donahue. It was articulated both in his recent lecture on interreligious dialogue during De la Salle week, and in the response to it given by Dr. Norrie Palmer. It was embedded in the comments of Brother Armin as well, who asked us: “Are our institutions nurturing the hopes of the world? Are we solving challenges across our borders? Are we confining ourselves to the small silos of our successful institutions?” He called for collaboration and engagement across difference by people of goodwill to solve the most pressing problems of our time, such as the alleviation of poverty and the degradation of our planet. Our academic distinctiveness of shared inquiry and collaboration requires us to be global in our understanding, inclusive in our practices, and consequential in our achievements.
This perspective on our distinctiveness seems to be shared among those who have participated in the strategic planning process thus far, in listening sessions, surveys, and initiative task forces. We believe in the strength that diversity brings us while knowing we have work to do, in ways like building a faculty whose diversity more closely resembles that of our students, and in eliminating the barriers to their success. Our study abroad, travel opportunities and support have expanded, our international student population is growing, and global competencies are infused in every level of degree. We are increasingly integrating education for meaningful lives with meaningful jobs, and there’s considerable appetite for international, community and business partnerships. Our commitment to student success extends to the exploration of new learning platforms, and whatever form they take, they must emphasize high quality and collaborative relationships among students and their faculty.
Let’s return, for a moment, to our exhaustion. We have come so far. How will we continue to accomplish so much in a manner that’s sustainable?
First, we must rethink revenue sources and student support. Of course, we can and must be enthusiastic partners in fundraising and student recruitment, but student success is also important. We’ve done well with first year retention and have launched promising new graduate programs. We will need to continue to explore flexibility for our students, and we need to anticipate and support growing numbers of returning and transfer students.
Second, we must continue building faculty sufficiency and recognition. We’ve made modest strides in sufficiency, adding full-time faculty and starting a new appointment category, “Visiting Professor of Liberal Arts.” These three new, full-time colleagues have been selected for their potential contributions to the Collegiate Seminar Program. And, of course, we continue to celebrate the highest honor bestowed on a faculty member by peers: the Professor of the Year. Each year, the nominations grow, as does the evidence of the talent and lifetime achievements of our faculty. This year’s Professor of the year is Dave Bowen.
Third, we must support innovation and flexibility consistent with our academic quality and distinctiveness. I applaud Barry Eckhouse’s leadership and the cohort of faculty who, drawing on the successes of our graduate and professional programs, are experimenting with hybrid learning formats in our next Jan Term. We’ve got ample support for innovation among our staff as well, for instance, in our stellar Library staff under the direction of Dean Pat Kreitz. We’ve long appreciated our librarians for their service; they are also “at the crucial junction… (in) the onslaught of ever-changing technology while reimagining the future….” And finally, we also need to support the kind of innovation that can only come from faculty scholarship.
In support of faculty scholarship, and in consultation with the Faculty Development Fund Committee and Committee on Teaching and Scholarship, we will be launching a new Faculty Research Grant program this year. This program will fund faculty to establish or sustain an active research program or creative activity; to collaborate among faculty, students, and across disciplines; to secure external grant support; or to advance effective pedagogy. Beginning this fall, up to nine proposals will be funded each fiscal year, distributed proportionally across the Schools, for an amount up to $9,000 each.
I realize there are other considerable needs of our faculty––office space, updated classrooms, staff support and fewer committees. Let the SMC faculty research grant be one additional step toward recognizing and promoting the intellectual and creative achievements of our faculty.
This morning I opened a card sent to me by a faculty member. It said, “Four years ago I came to Saint Mary’s…and knew immediately that I wanted to stay, not because it was a job, but because it was the right place for me to teach. No kidding, I am a better person since I came here. Every day I feel compelled to do better for the students, my colleagues, and myself.” I share that feeling, and I hope you do as well. I’m confident that together, we will deepen our commitment to and practice of inclusion, demonstrate the enduring relevance of our education, and claim our academic distinction. Our students ––and you––deserve no less.