Spring Address to Faculty

Excerpts from Provost's Spring Address to Faculty
May 14, 2010

Those of you who were here last year may remember that I began with a recap of my first year or so. I've now survived year two. It's been a roller coaster year, but that means highs as well as lows. As one faculty member said during the WASC visit, "well, we already knew we were on the Titanic, but at least now we've seen the iceberg and we've got all the deck chairs moved to the right side of the ship." One chair at a time.

I have many "thank yous" to the deck hands moving those chairs. Several people do double duty on committees, so I'll only name them once. I'll begin with my amazing office staff, Gloria Janas, Judy Selland, and Chandra Commer. I have two great additions this year as well, with Robert Henderson and Sam Agronow. Mary McCall has continued to be indispensible to my work. The members of my Academic Affairs Budget and Planning Committee, Roy Wensley, Larisa Genin, Nancy Sorenson, Steve Woolpert, Frances Sweeney, Chris Sindt, and Senate representatives Tom Poundstone, Steve Cortright, Tomas Gomez, and Joel Burley worked diligently to advise me on those painful budget reductions while preserving the integrity of our academic mission. The entire Senate and the Rank & Tenure Committees also deserve mention. My College Committee on Inclusive Excellence co-chair, Robert Bulman, has been exemplary in maintaining momentum on our pursuit of fostering inclusive community. I have enjoyed the support of many Brothers, some of who have graciously served on my committees, in particular: Br. Charles Hilken, Br. Donald Mansir, and Br. Mark McVann. Additional faculty and staff assisted with the WASC report and visit: Michael Beseda, Jane Camarillo, Tom Carter, Becky Proehl, Myrna Santiago, and Carole Swain. Search committee chairs Julia Odom, for Director of Institutional Research, Linda Herkenhoff, for the Dean of SEBA, and Ken Brown, for the Dean of Science all deserve mention. Steve Bachofer stepped into a new role as Director of Faculty Development and launched new initiatives such as the student research poster session this past week. Finally, I am indebted to the faculty serving on the Academic Blueprint Task Force for serving as ambassadors, critics, and representatives of and to the faculty as a whole.

And of course, I owe much to faculty and students who I don't see as often. Important conversations happen at lunch, during intermissions at performances, sometimes even on the Chapel lawn. At a Senate meeting a few weeks ago, I described the story of how I became involved with the student demonstrators who created a "Tent City" in front of the statue of De LaSalle. Perhaps you know this story, but in case you don't, I'd like to offer a brief summary. As I tell this story, please know that there were also a few faculty, who I won't mention by name, that were critical in helping me work with the students.

In March, students held a silent protest that culminated with a list of demands presented to the President's office. I met with the students on the Thursday of Easter break, and we talked about what wasn't going to happen – such as providing condoms on campus – but what might be possible if I knew more about their concerns. A week later they sent a revised list of demands to the College Committee on Inclusive Excellence and said that they were prepared to begin a hunger strike to achieve their goals.

Here's where I think the students turned an important corner and symbolized what is now possible at Saint Mary's. They said, "You've taught us well, and we know the history at Saint Mary's. Nothing ever happens until you force things to break down. The structures that are here don't work for us; we don't have a voice, and we keep getting hurt. So we have to do a hunger strike. It's the only way to get real change around here."

At this point a faculty member started to ask, "What demands do we have to meet to get you to..." And I said, "Wait a minute. That's not the right question."

I said, "It's easy to repeat history. It's harder to break the pattern. You know that we share the same values: safety for our students, financial security, education that validates student voices and experiences. How can we work together and do this differently? That would be truly radical."

And they accepted the challenge. They did not call the media and stage a press conference. They did not abandon their coursework. They did not strike. They did not disrupt other campus activities. They continued to work with me knowing that I would never accept advocacy for or condemnation of individual people. They turned their protest into a "Call 2 Action," and wrote of the "commitment, loyalty, and love towards the institution that has made us conscious and better individuals. …We are a testimony to the importance of higher education and have appreciated every opportunity given to us…. Inclusive community symbolizes an integration of perspectives and life experiences. It is a community in solidarity with all people; acknowledging, respecting and equally valuing our differences, thus allowing individuals to learn and grow to fulfill their potential."

The change from a defiant, disruptive protest to a "Call 2 Action" contains lessons for us all, in moving away from patterns of point/counterpoint, for or against, up or down votes on every initiative. One long-time faculty member said to me over lunch, there's a new collaborative spirit and processes on campus. Progress has been iterative, with more consultation. We've got more faculty involvement in budget and planning, an expanding summer session, more faculty development opportunities.

Much positive change has happened, and I'm proposing more on the way. That doesn't mean abandoning that which has made us strong. Advancing inclusive excellence makes us better at what we already have said we should do. As one graduating senior, Mohammad Hajighasemi, a valedictorian candidate says: "I am an Iranian born, Muslim, first generation college student from a middle-class family who immigrated to the United States in search of a better life. I am proud to tell you that I became a United States citizen while attending Saint Mary's. The Saint Mary's community, with its strong Catholic values, Core Principles, and traditions, did not try to make me abandon my past. Instead, Saint Mary's encouraged me to understand faith in a global and personal context, to embrace my past, and let my past guide my future."

I've been hearing lately that our recognition and acknowledgement of diversity undermines our Catholic and Lasallian mission, because we are using secular values to guide us. Diversity is a fact, no more secular than facts about economic decline or the conjunction of the Moon and Venus this weekend. Of the students who have deposited for undergraduate admission in the fall, only 45% identify themselves as white by ethnic category. And these students bring diversity beyond race and ethnicity. Diversity is a vibrant, vital fact at Saint Mary's. Inclusion is the value embedded in our mission and inspired by our faith. If we are to be true to our mission and "meet students where they are," that's about more than assessing and accommodating a certain level of academic preparation. That means meeting students as people, individuals with unique constellations of experiences, needs, and desires that must be known on the way to understanding their humanness; you can't leapfrog the person to get to the sacred within.

Inclusion also means challenging the divisiveness inherent in pitting "diversity" against "Catholic," which puts the reality of people and their lived experience outside of the concerns of a Catholic institution. I draw inspiration from Superior General Brother Ãlvaro Rodriguez Echeverria's address at the International Association for Lasallian Universities Encuentro last year, in which he talks about the unique tradition of the Brothers: "We must not forget that our Lasallian Universities are set in the XXI century in the current of this great intellectual movement within the Catholic Church. The Tradition that is our foundation is more inclusive than the Catholic Church or any other religious institution…. (and) a free search for truth has become one of the most significant characteristic of [Lasallian] Universities." This free search for truth is at the heart of a Saint Mary's education, expressed in our Collegiate Seminar. As Robert Maynard Hutchins, editor of the "Great Books of the Western World" writes in "The Great Conversation," "The spirit of Western civilization is the spirit of inquiry. Its dominant element is the Logos. Nothing is to remain undiscussed. Everybody is to speak his [or her] mind. No proposition is to be left unexamined. The exchange of ideas is held to be the path of realization of the potentialities of [humanity]."

The free search for truth requires commitments to both inclusion and academic excellence, as one cannot exist without the other. Here, too, the conversations can become divisive. As a Lasallian institution, we are decidedly anti-elitist, which means opening our community and making our College affordable "for those who have fewer financial means, to the disadvantaged, to those who have been excluded" (Br. Alvaro). Anti-elitist does not mean anti-intellectual, yet that's sometimes how the conversation evolves. Our academic identity has been built on taking a decidedly elitist understanding of the great questions of human existence, expressed in the Great Books, in an anti-elitist manner, by opening the doors to include more voices in the conversation.

Although Collegiate Seminar is not the whole of our academic identity, it sets a high intellectual bar for the entire institution, one which requires a sustained and institutional commitment to academic excellence. Students at all levels continue to seek our Catholic, Lasallian, and liberal arts education, and everything we do must be in service of advancing that mission. This includes the two main initiatives on which I'll be focused in the coming year: completion of the Academic Blueprint, and developing a compensation philosophy and structure through which we can retain and recruit the faculty who ensure our academic excellence.

The Academic Blueprint extends what we already do well. As our own Br. Donald writes, quoting the work of the Core Curriculum Task Force, "The liberal arts tradition fosters intellectual skills and habits of the mind so that students seek not merely facts but fundamental principles. [All three] traditions help students integrate what might otherwise be fragmented, specialized fields of knowledge so that they might address the larger questions about what we are and what we should be as human persons." These traditions should be evident in all educational endeavors at the College, hence the Blueprint directives of innovation and collaboration in the ways we integrate knowledge, ethical and effective engagement with diverse and global experience, and leadership for social justice and the common good. The Blueprint does not determine the curriculum, but tries to bring our traditions into the world as lived by our students today, a complex, global, mediated environment in which everyone seems to be saying something, but not everyone has something worthwhile to say.

The standard fare of an academic plan includes things like: recruit and retain excellent faculty, staff, and students; strengthen our academic reputation, improve student performance; support scholarship; and enhance the physical infrastructure for teaching and learning. Of course these are all important, but they are also generic and must speak to our unique mission. We need talented faculty who can serve as role models for our increasingly diverse students. We need to enhance the global experience of our students, staff and faculty both at home and abroad, by developing study abroad and degree programs with international partners, particularly those within our Catholic and Lasallian networks, providing more travel opportunities for students, developing global perspectives in the curriculum, and increasing the number of international students on campus.

When we talk about "ethical and effective engagement," we mean not just the content of the coursework but the process of learning, the practice of shared inquiry. When we talk about learning and teaching for innovation, creativity, and collaboration, we are again inspired by the cooperative nature of the Lasallian classroom and the expression of liberal learning in shared intellectual experiences. There are many ways to enhance the best of what we do, such as providing greater support for student-faculty research projects, exploring joint degree programs and course intersections, and promoting team teaching across disciplines.
When we talk about providing a physical and technological infrastructure that promotes shared inquiry, we mean prioritizing faculty office and student collaborative learning, and performance and exhibition spaces. When we talk about advances in technology, we don't mean replacing personal connections with students, eliminating books, clickers in every classroom, or requiring core courses to be online. We do mean creating more opportunities for faculty-student interaction, increasing access to education for students, and exploring new pedagogies for those faculty who deem it appropriate.

When we talk about leadership that advances social justice and the common good, and the need to ensure student success, we are guided by the Lasallian mission to develop "programs to prepare students for careers that will have social impact… (and) having them learn by researching social reality and applying their knowledge to this reality in order to transform it." (Br. Alvaro). This may mean coordination of existing leadership programs, expanding our peer mentoring programs, offering more capstone courses and internships, expanding our summer session, creating more living-learning communities, developing robust student portfolios, and providing greater preparation for graduate and professional school.

We don't have to wait to get it all done, written down on paper, submitted for an up-or-down vote, and then rejected based on a point of ambiguity. Some pieces will start new, next year, as we're working out the longer-term priorities. For instance, yesterday during the Senate meeting I voiced my sense that, based on input from faculty, the implementation of College-wide, annual, merit-based pay didn't seem likely. On the other hand, I firmly believe that we lack adequate mechanisms for recognition of faculty achievement. So, I asked the Committee on Teaching and Scholarship to propose criteria and selection processes for faculty awards. The Professor of the Year, an overall career achievement award, will remain, with the award amount increased to $5000. This past year we celebrated the contributions of Sandy Grayson. Our next Professor of the Year is Steve Sloan.

Starting next year there will be four additional awards of the same amount, one each given to faculty for outstanding achievement in teaching, research, and service, and an additional "Early-Career Teacher-Scholar Award." In the coming years, consistent with the aspirations of the Academic Blueprint, I hope to invest in faculty in other ways as well – with additional faculty development funds for research and teaching innovation, collaborative projects across disciplines, and program development consistent with the aims of the Blueprint.
Last year, in anticipation of the August Faculty Day, I assigned homework and asked you to consider: what will Saint Mary's be best at? I think it's the combination of anti-elite Lasallian inclusive community and shared inquiry with scholarly rigor and engagement. As Father John Haughey, S.J. might say it, we excel in enabling the knower to come to know in all the full dimensions. Our freedom to introduce and explore spirituality in the process of coming to know is, in Fr. Haughey's terms, the highest praise for God. An in those epiphanies that come in our teaching, scholarship, and shared intellectual experiences, God's glory is revealed.

By promoting ethical and effective engagement in diverse and global environments, learning and teaching for innovation, creativity and collaboration, and leadership for social justice and the common good we hope to foster that passion for fullness and unity of truth, and engender faith that what we do matters and has a purpose greater than ourselves. This coming year, together, and deck chair by deck chair, we will figure out how to achieve it, and what it will take to retain and recruit the students and faculty it requires.
In the meantime, have a great summer, and I'll see you in August.