Provost Spring 2018 Address

It’s wonderful to be here tonight for my first spring address to the faculty at Saint Mary’s, and I’m grateful to all of you for being here with me at this crazy time of year.

I’d like to begin by thanking the people who made tonight happen—Gloria Janas, Laure Bowman, and Linda Ryerson.

I’d also like to thank the members of the Council of Deans, as well as several faculty leaders, who have provided valuable support and advice in my first few months. And a special thank you to the Brothers of the Saint Mary’s College and Alemany communities. They’ve been incredibly welcoming and willing to engage in dialogue, and have provided valuable guidance and resources. In fact, one of the resources they shared with me, “The Brother Of The Christian Schools In The World Today: A Declaration,” was particularly helpful in preparing my remarks tonight.

Today marks my 107th day at Saint Mary’s, and I know that many of you want to hear my observations and impressions so far. 

These first three months have been both wild and wonderful. Wild because I arrived on campus mid-year, in the middle of some incredibly important processes and initiatives, such as the College budget process, the formation of the Business and Academic Resources (BAR) Task Force, faculty searches, Rank and Tenure reviews, and many others. As a result, I didn’t have the luxury of taking a few weeks to get to know everyone, learn where everything is, and what the policies and processes are . . . I just had to dive right in. 

Wild also because it was a particularly eventful and anxious semester, with a multitude of initiatives in the works, some difficult moments for the community, and the unexpected departures of some of my leadership team.

But it’s also been wonderful. Wonderful because of the incredibly warm welcome I received from faculty and staff, and wonderful because there are amazing people at Saint Mary’s. And wonderful because of some really special moments I experienced—like the interview Rosemary Graham conducted with Ryan Coogler last Wednesday, and the Professor of the Year event honoring Denise Witzig.

And speaking of the Professor of the Year, I am thrilled to announce the 2018-19 recipient, Dr. Joan Peterson, of the Kalmanovitz School of Education! 

In the midst of all this, I managed to do a lot of listening and learning. I held listening lunches with both faculty and staff, attended Senate meetings, spent every Tuesday afternoon with the Rank and Tenure Committee, had one-on-one meetings with a variety of faculty leaders, and met with the staff council and many other groups. 

I also reviewed as many reports, data sets, policies, and other historical documents as I could find. I learned a lot about the mood and culture on campus, about the challenges faced by individuals and the College, about what’s been working and what hasn’t.

Layered on top of all of this are external factors impacting the College. As I mentioned on Wednesday [at the May 16, 2018 Academic Senate Meeting], the landscape of higher education has been changing incredibly rapidly in the last 10 years. A combination of demographic trends and economic factors has made it increasingly difficult to enroll students. Increases in costs related to things like healthcare and compliance are outpacing growth in revenue; new types of institutions with different educational and business models are now competing with traditional institutions. These changes have had real impacts on Saint Mary’s and other similar institutions. For example, I know many small- to mid-size institutions in the WASC region that have experienced an enrollment shortfall at least once in the last five or six years. And while I was on the WASC commission I saw institutions lose their accreditation and go out of business, or be bought up by other institutions.

There is good news. The good news is that compared to many institutions, Saint Mary’s is in stable condition financially and has good metrics in other areas. We have also been making incremental improvements and have some advantages that will help us meet the challenges. Our distinctive mission and educational model, for one. Also, having strong graduate and professional programs gives us a leg up on many other similar institutions. 

But as Will Rogers said, “Even if you’re on the right track you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” In other words, we need to be proactive, reflective, and vigilant to ensure that we remain viable and sustainable.

What I’d like to do with the rest of my address is to share some musings about three topics —academic excellence, community, and shared governance—and what these mean to me. And then I’ll reflect on some of the things I’ve learned this semester, as well as a few thoughts I have about moving forward.

First, academic excellence. Every university strategic plan has something in it about academic excellence in some form or another. Saint Mary’s is no exception: Goal 1 of our plan is “Raise the Academic Profile and Distinction.”

But what does academic excellence really mean?  Here are a few thoughts. First, the core function of a university is the creation and transmission of knowledge, so at the core of academic excellence is faculty and students. Faculty need to be able to thrive as teacher-scholars, and students need support to grow and succeed not only academically but also in their spiritual, social, civic, and professional lives.

But what excellence looks like depends on what kind of institution you are. At Saint Mary’s we have a specific educational philosophy about who we want to serve and what the learning environment should be like, so for us excellence means delivering on that promise in the best way possible. It means being the very best version of ourselves as a College. 

As Parker Palmer says, “Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic self-hood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks—we will also find our path of authentic service in the world.” I think this applies to institutions as well as individuals.

Excellence starts with high expectations. That is, we have to set challenging goals for ourselves. And then we need to honestly reflect on evidence about whether we’re achieving those goals.

Academic excellence is inclusive and recognizes that the best learning takes place when diverse perspectives are included. And in light of the Lasallian focus on social justice and serving the marginalized, excellence requires inclusion and equity. 

Academic excellence is not always flashy or sexy; it requires us to attend to infrastructure and processes. Because we cannot be excellent at everything, it also requires us to be strategic and make tough choices that we will do X but not Y. 

Excellence is an attitude as much as it is an outcome. It’s a strange combination of confidence and humility. Confidence to set challenging goals and work toward them; humility to understand that sometimes you will fail; humility to honestly reflect on how well you’re doing and how you can improve. We have to remind ourselves of and celebrate our accomplishments, but not get complacent. Excellence is a habit. It should be built into everything that supports the academic enterprise.

Next, community. One word I’ve heard a lot since I arrived at Saint Mary’s is “community.” For the De La Salle Christian Brothers, living in community is part of their commitment to the Institute. And for many people at Saint Mary’s the sense of community is a plus. But there are many ways to interpret the word “community.” And if there’s not a clear, shared sense of what is meant by community, then there can be problems.

Perhaps the biggest risk of emphasizing “community” without a shared understanding is the pressure to conform or suppress disagreement. But community does not mean conformity, as I learned in the Brothers’ “Declaration”: “Unity is not to be found in uniformity, but in harmonious complementarity.” That suggests that a healthy community is diverse and inclusive.

But in order to foster a diverse and inclusive community, there needs to be a set of shared values and shared goals that both recognize and bridge difference. There also needs to be honesty, authenticity, respect, empathy, real dialogue—all the things that engender trust. Again, quoting Parker Palmer: “Relational trust is built on movements of the human heart such as empathy, commitment, compassion, patience, and the capacity to forgive.” 

There’s an intentionality and structure to community. The intentionality comes from the fact that you choose to be in a community and choose to remain in the community. And every community has some type of rules, structures, or protocol—some understanding of roles and responsibilities. They might be informal and unwritten, but they’re still necessary for a healthy community. 

“Rules and structures are not established simply for their own preservation, but their purpose is the service of persons.  . . . The Brother  . . . will be concerned for the common good through respect for these rules and structures.” (“A Declaration”)

And finally, living in community is hard. There can be messiness and unpleasantness, and as we all know from our personal relationships and family lives, maintaining relationships is just hard work and requires constant care.

And just a few words about shared governance. In some ways shared governance is a subset of the community category, since it is one of the structures around which an academic community is organized. But it also sits at the intersection between community and academic excellence, since healthy shared governance is essential to carry out the academic mission of a university.

As with any community endeavor, effective shared governance depends on a clear understanding of roles, responsibilities, and processes, as well as on the openness, respect, and trust in the good will of others that any community demands.

So, in light of those musings and what I’ve learned so far in these 107 days, here are a few things I think we need to work on at Saint Mary’s. First, there’s internal work to do to build a “better version of ourselves.” We might be diverse, but we’re not always inclusive. Some of this is because there’s work to do in building community. 

From what I’ve heard, from the groups I have met with, we need to work on welcoming, understanding, and valuing difference. We also need to work on getting to know each other and developing empathy. My goal is to create a climate where everyone in the community can thrive. 

Shared governance has come up a lot in my listening tour and other venues, along with transparency and community, and it’s an area I want to focus on. But I’m not sure everyone means the same thing when they say shared governance. We need a shared understanding of what shared governance means. I look forward to working with all of you to create this shared understanding, and improve the ways in which we work together. And part of that will be recognizing and accepting that there will be issues about which reasonable people of good will disagree.

Another area we need to work on is student success. We do a lot of work on this and have invested a lot of resources, and yet our student retention rates have started to decline. This is a concern. We need to examine what we’ve been doing in this area and determine what is effective and what isn’t and make adjustments accordingly. Our students make a lot of sacrifices to come here and we owe them every opportunity to succeed. This will be a strong focus of mine in the coming year. 

Of course, students cannot be successful without outstanding faculty, and I’ve learned so far since I’ve been here that we need to do a lot of work to ensure that we’re able to attract, retain, and support the success of our faculty. This will be another strong focus of mine.

Finally, I think we have some work to do in promoting a culture of excellence. I think some of you have heard me say, when people ask me what's the difference between Jesuit institutions and Lasallian institutions, that we're awfully humble here at Saint Mary's—which can be good in some contexts. But in facing the challenges ahead, I think we need to get a little swagger on.

This is a great place and we can be even better. But that means creating a culture of excellence. Now as I said earlier, sometimes it's not very exciting. It's about how you do your day-to-day business. It's about making processes clearer and more efficient. It means making things work better. 

It’s the “unsexy” part of quality—clear policies and processes; building sustainable infrastructure. Students and faculty should be able to focus on their academic endeavors instead of getting frustrated by cumbersome processes or systems that don’t work. 

Now, those external challenges that I talked about: that's where the BAR Task Force comes in. The focus there is really twofold: First, maximizing the use of existing resources. Are we making the best use of those resources? Are there things we need to adjust, do differently to ensure we that are good stewards of those resources? Second, we need to increase revenue: that means increasing fundraising and the endowment, which we are currently working on. It’s going to mean thinking about innovative new graduate and professional programs, as well as exploring continuing education programs. And we have to look at totally new and untapped sources of revenue. You'll be hearing a lot more about the work of the BAR Task Force at the All Faculty Day in August, and there will be an opportunity for all of you to get involved in thinking about some of the data, analyses, and ideas coming out of the task force, so look forward to All Faculty Day.

So . . . (whew) . . . we have a lot of work to do. But I’m excited to do it in partnership with all of you. 

I’m all in . . . are you?