Opening Meeting, August 2011

Welcome all to the Fall Semester.

Let me first introduce our new Provost, Jane Gates, and describe new roles for colleagues Dan Goble, Paul Steinmetz and Jane von Trapp.

What we want to do this afternoon is to describe—and indeed to celebrate—where we have been and also to talk about where we are headed, with special emphasis on some of the most notable challenges and tasks that lie ahead. 

Now, there’s no denying that the 2010/11 academic year presented us with ample cause for distraction.
Throughout the year we contemplated impending budget reductions that were difficult and downright scary.  We watched the evolution of a major change in the governance structure of public higher education in Connecticut, a change that still is very much a work in progress.  And we faced considerable instability in our senior academic leadership.  There was sufficient occasion for us to become distracted, and there are many universities around the country where similar challenges have caused academic communities and their members to go haywire. 

Thanks to all of you, that most definitely did not happen at Western Connecticut State University last year.  Because of your common understanding of our vision, because of your dedication to our students, and because of your trust in and commitment to one another, we experienced another outstanding year of student success, faculty achievement and continuing institutional momentum. 

Here are just a few examples of this success:

SLIDE SHOW (narrated by JWS)

I am very proud of what you all have done.  And despite all we face, I am confident that we can continue this record of performance.  But we have work to do in the months and years ahead.   For the next few minutes, Jane Gates, Paul Reis and I want to talk about the nature of that work.

First, Provost Gates will provide some information about the importance of our upcoming NEASC reaccreditation visit, about how we will manage that task, and about the work already under way in that regard.  Provost Gates.

Now to money:  despite some recent good news, our budget challenges continue.   The acceptance of the concessions package by SEBAC permitted us to step back from a terrifying budget precipice, and we should have more stability going forward.  We will be able to do some hiring in critical areas, resume dean searches, and continue turning special faculty appointments into tenure-track lines.  But our budget is still under considerable pressure because of the size of the state deficit and the ills of our national economy.  Vice President Paul Reis will give an overview of where we are today and how we are proceeding.

I want now to place what we are about in a somewhat larger context and suggest some work that must engage us in the upcoming months and years.  As most of you know, this university’s growth and development over the past 5 years or so has been guided by a strategic vision and plan conceived through a very inclusive process in 2005 and 2006.  That vision and plan have served us well.  They have given us a common vocabulary.  They have helped us establish priorities for decision-making, decision-making that has sometimes been difficult.  But I believe that now is the time for us, as a university community, to assess where we have been and where we wish to go. 

Changes in our internal and external environments demand this.   Five of these are the following:

  1.  Since 2005, WCSU has grown in enrollment, in the variety of our academic programs, in budget and in infrastructure.
  2. As I indicated earlier, the organizational framework of higher education in Connecticut is changing.
  3. There have been evolving changes in both the characteristics of our students and in the issues that concern college students nationwide.
  4. We face unprecedented financial challenges that may well change the economic model of public higher education in this state as it has elsewhere.
  5. WCSU’s visibility and economic impact on our region has steadily grown, and with that come both responsibilities and opportunities.

We must take these changed circumstances into account as we commence a community-wide conversation about the next leg of Western’s institutional journey.  More specifically, we need to take two steps:

    • Examine and revise elements of our strategic plan in light of new realities;
    • Rebalance the university’s financial model. We cannot continue to rely on increasing tuition revenues from enrollment increases to support our enterprise. We must either develop efficiencies that will enable us to thrive from a lower budget base or find new revenue sources not related to Fall/Spring tuition—or both.

As we begin that work, however, I believe it’s very important that we step back and reflect upon our broader purpose as an American public university in 2011.   We have all in recent years been engaged in curricular development, accreditation work, assessment, student service and budget-balancing.  This is work that must be done, but it focuses more on individual processes and species than on the entire academic ecosystem it’s our responsibility to nurture. 

Let me give you an idea of what I mean by referencing an article that Louis Menand contributed to the New Yorker in June.  Menand, who teaches English at Harvard and often writes about higher education, reflects that there are three theories of what purpose college serves for society.

  1. Higher education prepares students for the workforce, but also produces what Menard calls “a society of like-minded grown-ups” and “exposes future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing.”
  2. College is a process that allows society to “sort out its most intelligent members from its less intelligent ones.”  Its goal is to get the most out of the nation’s human resources, in the aggregate.  This theory is emphatically meritocratic.
  3. College is vital to the US developing the special skills and knowledge all advanced societies need to compete in the global 21st century world.  Nations are measured by what proportion of their population hold four-year degrees.  More is better. This has been a long time foundation of federal higher education policy; it’s been made even more explicit by the Obama Administration.  And I expect it will be an ever more visible philosophy in higher education policy in Connecticut.

Now, to some degree all universities serve all three of these functions.  That goes for WCSU as well. 

We certainly endeavor through General Education courses to achieve the goals of the first theory—educating enlightened and empowered citizens.  By enforcing both admissions and academic performance standards, we pursue the second theory—we identify the students who are likely to be outstanding in the world beyond the campus.  And through our commitment to access and retention, we—like all public institutions—are driven by the third theory; repeatedly we hear demands that we must increase our retention and graduation rates.

The question I propose we ask ourselves is which of these three functions do we judge paramount?  What is the appropriate mix of these goals for us?  We cannot be all things to all people, and the challenges we face today require us to be more purposeful about what we continue to do and what we decide to stop doing.  Stepping back to a broad conversation about what fundamentally matters to us seems to me a good place to begin the strategic re-balancing work we as a community must engage.

We will be developing a process to do just that during the months ahead.    It, like our earlier strategic planning dialogues, will be inclusive and interactive.  I know how busy everyone here is.  I know that many of us are laboring in settings where we need additional colleagues.  Thus we’ll endeavor to make this important collective work efficient and unobtrusive.    I look forward to what we will discover.

As we proceed, we must also remain aware of the daily realities we face, and I’d like to close by reminding us of two of these through references to a couple of my favorite satirical novels about academic life.

The first reality for us as a public university is that we must remain relevant to our stakeholders.  Our programs must be excellent to afford our students easy transition to professional fields and to graduate study.  We must understand the needs and expectations of our external constituents—from potential applicants to lawmakers in Hartford.  We need to understand the point that the British novelist David Lodge makes in Nice Work, the story of a young literature professor named Robyn Penrose who participates in a business partnership that introduces her to the corporate world. 

Robyn talks to her boyfriend Charles, also a literature professor: 

“You know, there are millions of people out there who haven’t the slightest interest in what we do.”

“What?” Charles says, looking up from his book and marking his place with his index finger. . . .

“Of course they don’t know what we do, but even if one tried to explain it to them they wouldn’t understand, and even if they understood what we were doing they wouldn’t understand why we were doing it, or why anyone should pay us to do it.  So much the worse for them.”

“Doesn’t that bother you at all?” Robyn says.  “That the things we care so passionately about—for instance, whether Derrida’s critique of metaphysics lets idealism in by the back door, or whether Lacan’s psychoanalytical theory is phallogocentric, or whether Foucault’s theory of the episteme is reconcilable with dialectical materialism—things like that, which we argue about and read about endlessly—doesn’t it worry you that ninety-nine percent of the population couldn’t give a monkey’s?”

“A what?” says Charles.

“A  monkey’s.  It means you don’t care a bit.”

Folks, our work must be relevant to our academic fields.  But, today, it must be demonstrably relevant to our stakeholders as well.

Second, we must understand the students whom we teach, advice, house, counsel, feed and support.  Some of us are at a remove from our undergraduate experiences (I speak only for myself!).  Thus it’s perhaps useful to hear the description from Jane Smiley’s novel Moo of how one freshman, midway through the semester, understands her collegiate experience.  Her name is Sherri; some of you may recognize her.

“. . . One day last week when she’d gotten to her English class, the teacher and some of the students who always sat in the front row were laughing about a memo the teacher (whose name Sherri still wasn’t quite sure of) had gotten in which students were called “customers.”  Now it was true that Sherri had come in late, and also true that she owed the teacher two papers, so she hadn’t wanted to attract the woman’s attention any more than necessary, but she’d found the laughter confusing at first, then aggravating.  When the teacher tried to widen the discussion by asking what the others thought about the difference between “students” and “customers,” Sherri had maintained the same appearance of benign ignorance and noncommittal good will that the other freshmen had, but that didn’t mean that she didn’t have an opinion.  In fact, they all had the same opinion, which they expressed to one another after class—if they were paying all this money, then they must be customers, and if they were customers, then why was that particular English teacher so bo-o-o-ring?  Factory reject? Candidate for manufacturer’s recall?  Obsolete model? Was the total tedium of their class due to mechanical failure or pilot error?  Well, it had made them all laugh afterward in the hall outside of class.  But now, limp on her bed, Sherri decided it wasn’t funny.  The fact was, she wasn’t getting what she was paying for, which was—what?  She couldn’t define it, exactly.  But she knew this limp, irritable feeling well enough.  It was the sensation of customer dissatisfaction, and it was sooooo annoying.”

Now I’m not implying that all of our students are like Sherri, but I think we all can agree that they bring us life stories and expectations that may be somewhat different than the ones we all had during our college days.  To help us think more deeply about that issue, we will have a visit in November from Dr. Jean Twenge.  Dr. Twenge is a psychology professor at San Diego State and the author of several books about the attitudes, expectations and mores of today’s young people.  Her most recent work, The Narcissism Epidemic, is the foundation for the workshops she’ll conduct and for the President’s Lecture she’ll present.

We all have work ahead, but it is labor that I know we will attack with the same energy and commitment that have characterized this university in the years past.  And, to make one last reference to my satirical readings, we will no doubt do it as well with a good sense of humor. 

Thank you for all you have done, all you do, and all you will do for Western and our students.

Welcome to the Fall Semester.


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