Becoming What We Are--Part III
Remarks to the Graduate Faculty 8/24/99
Mitakuye Oyasin! "Oh, my friends and relations!" This is a traditional Lakota formula by which a speaker asks the hearers to give careful consideration to what is said.
When I first spoke to the Graduate Faculty two years ago (has it only been two?), I urged us to ponder Nietzsche's admonition to "become what you are." I said then, and I repeat again, that Minnesota State University, Mankato is the largest public graduate school in the State of Minnesota, aside from the University of Minnesota. Graduate studies is one of the distinctive competencies of our university. We have been involved in graduate education for almost 45 years, and many of our 72 graduate programs have been here for 30 years and more. I also stressed that it is graduate education that helps create our distinctive campus environment, different from 4-year colleges and from research universities. At Mankato, our teaching and the application and generation of new knowledge are tied together; our research is an extension of our teaching and our teaching is an extension of our research. I also stressed that graduate programs at MSU are a common good, that a comprehensive university has its own role and character distinct from that of a research university, and that global competition requires a clear vision of our distinctive competencies. We must become what we are.
Last year, I joined the President and urged you to resolve together, like the Athenians, to "transmit this place not only not less, but greater, better, and more beautiful than it was given to us." I spoke about the tensions that might well tear apart traditional "comprehensive" universities—issues of distinctiveness and globalization and educational redefinition. And I spoke about our need to define our own niche and hold it. As faculty at a comprehensive university, we particularly are called to project into the next millenium the great tradition which we have spent our lives mastering. The cyberworld of the 21st Century will not be of our making; it belongs to the generation we are helping to raise up. If our values survive, it will be only as they have adopted them. So I urged us last year to adopt as our motto nil nisi bene (nothing but the best).
We come into this year greater, better, and more harmonious internally than in either of my prior two years, and maybe in many years before that:
- We have successfully managed semester conversion. There are several ways to interpret that statement. "We survived," is one. But I mean it differently. We have come out of semester conversion with most of our programs re-newed and re-invented. We took the time to go back to the roots and reconsider what our programs were about and what sort of curriculum would advance that vision. We reconstructed our curricula, in many cases creating new courses, in almost all cases radically reconstructing what we used to teach. And now we have had a year to work out the wrinkles. We are coming out of semester conversion with our vision renewed, our sense of purpose newly focused. This will be a significant strength in facing the challenges ahead.
- Although our enrollments were down last year, the number of applications has been up these last two years. In times of incredibly low unemployment, and corresponding upward pressure on wages, it may have been difficult to convert that interest into enrollments—but the applications are a measure of prospective students’ confidence in us and what we can offer them.
- We are continuing to build our reputation as scholars. Research and instructional awards are up—in number of submissions, number of awards, dollars awarded, number of new writers submitting, and number of teams submitting proposals. We now have grants from almost every major federal agency, including NIH, NASA, NIMH, HUD and DOE. We have established a presence on the Web with our "Community of Scholars Database," where faculty can list their scholarly interests and people looking for partners can search the database for contacts. We successfully fielded our "first annual" undergraduate research conference this April (the "second annual" is scheduled for early March). Our human subjects review process has been streamlined, while actually strengthening the assurance that the rights of research subjects are being protected.
- The Center for Continuous Learning is poised to provide innovative new learning and delivery formats, as well as enrollment management and marketing support to Extended Campus graduate programs.
- The MnSCU Board of Trustees approved a report to the Legislature that outlined the feasibility of Doctoral degree programs in MnSCU. The Trustees have instructed the MnSCU Graduate Council to prepare a detailed report on the feasibility of specific programs for their consideration this Fall.
And it is a good thing that we are growing so strong internally, because the external challenges are significant and growing. There are significant new players in the world of higher education. Our competition now includes the likes of the University of Phoenix, Open University, Jones University, DeVry Institute—private, for-profit "providers" of higher education certified by associations such as North Central. Walden University (based in Minneapolis) has just hired Carol Beere (the highly respected graduate dean from Central Michigan University) as Vice President for Academic Affairs. These private providers are not "them" any longer, they are us. Further, we are seeing increased competition in our own "territory" as traditional institutions such as Lesley College, St. Mary’s University, or Cardinal Stritch College become more footloose and offer classes around the country (including, in some cases, Mankato).
I think these are among the many indicators that we have won the war! After all our generations on the sidelines of society—from the bookish clerics of the Medieval era to the wandering "clerks" of the Renaissance, through the 19th Century gentlemen educated in the liberal arts, into the Twentieth Century university with its absent-minded professors and young students biding their time until they could get into "the real world,"—the secret is now out. Business is knowledge, and everyone knows it. We even call ourselves "the Knowledge Society." As result, we are losing our monopoly over higher education as the business sector seeks to control a key input into their production process. We are losing control of the discourse, shifting from talking about students to talking about "customers," from talking about education to talking about "training," from measuring quality by our traditional, internal standards to measuring "conformance with customer desires." These shifts are not optional. We need to see ourselves as part of the larger whole and address those larger concerns as well as our own. As the Romans used to say, "Omnia mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis" (Things change, and we change with them). If we do not, we will not survive into the next century (as Sancho Panza put it, "Whether the pitcher hits the stone, or the stone hits the pitcher, it is going to be hard on the pitcher").
Nor do I think these changes are unreasonable or even undesirable. We are being asked to show demonstrable high quality, responsiveness, and scholarship "in service" to others. In return, our society will pay us to do what we love. Rather than turning from our roots in the Medieval cloister, we are being challenged to dig deeper and return to the roots of the Academy—in the Athenian agora.
It is a bargain, "cheap at the price" as they used to say. And do not underestimate the price that others are paying for us. Most people work at jobs so they can do what they love—somewhere else at some other time. Most people work at jobs that have little connection to anything they value, while we constantly get to explore our values and bring them to life.
If we are to show demonstrable high quality, responsiveness, and scholarship in service to others, we may need to shift the way we do things. This is not news to any of you—our own literature is rife with it. As Jules LaPidus is fond of quoting, "If we want things to stay the way they are, things will have to change."
- We will have to shift from teaching to fostering a learning community. Our private competitors will be better than we can be at "training" (especially the "sage on the stage" variety). But no one can beat us at our own game of fostering a space and time for learning—about oneself as well as "the content."
- We will have to strike a balance between specialization and generalization, shifting from a narrow focus on discipline to a "skunk works" of resources. When we were left to our own, inward-looking academies, we could support narrow expertise (like the medieval scholastics debating how many angels could dance on the head of a pin). The larger world, however, cares little for our disciplinary boundaries. There, they have problems and need solutions—wherever they come from. In the last half of the Twentieth Century, industry has mastered the art of assembling cross-functional teams to create innovative solutions to wicked problems. Can we do less?
- In the knowledge society, things change faster than the tailfins on a 1950s auto. It requires agility to respond. As "guardians of tradition," we have developed habits that protect us from being distracted by fads and fashion as we seek for the essential and lasting. And we must continue to protect those traditions which it is our calling to transmit to the next generation. But we must also find ways to engage the society that supports us and more quickly discern what of the new will be lasting. And we will be asked to do it with innovative delivery formats (Executive seminars, Distance Learning, Web, CCL, etc.)
- Rapid change creates a compensatory need for "consumer confidence"—How can they know we know what we know? Many of us dealt with this same issue when we tried to teach our students to critically assess the reliability of information they get on the Web. The solution, as we try to teach our students and as society is demanding of us, is to foster a culture of evidence (we are, after all, a community of scholars!). Just like our students, we must learn the habit of assessing our outcomes, as a matter both of accountability and of quality assurance.
So, there are some things we will be doing this year to respond to the challenges we face:
- Enrollment Management: It goes without saying that over the long run, we must attract enough students to be able to offer the breadth and depth we want for our programs. Most of us have operated on a "field of dreams" approach to recruiting graduate students ("If you build it, they will come"). We need to bring our considerable analytical and problem-solving skills to the task of providing the right size and composition for our learning communities. Uncontrolled growth is no better than uncontrolled decline—both are fatal. We need to determine the right size for our programs and put in place the right resources for that size (both student and faculty resources). As part of enrollment management, I will work this year to provide logistical support for program recruiting initiatives and greater flexibility in graduate assistant compensation so programs can better respond to market pressures in recruiting.
- Program Assessment and Review: We need to respond to our stakeholders’ legitimate interests in demonstrable high quality in everything we do. This will require building a culture of evidence focused on outcomes rather than inputs. Demonstrating the quality of our programs will, in turn, support our efforts at managing our enrollment.
- Program Initiatives: We must position ourselves to be able to respond with agility to the society that supports us. Each program should explore both the lengths and the limits of potential collaborations, both within the university and with external partners. Programs should also explore graduate certificate programs, whether alone or in collaboration with other programs. Some programs may be exploring doctoral degrees that would serve the needs of our region. In these and other ways, we will find new "markets" for our programs.
- Scholarly Service: Finally, we must position our scholarship as service to others. Sometimes this will take the form of mentoring students in research and creative activity by working shoulder-to-shoulder at the bench or in the field or on the stage. The Undergraduate Research Conference is an exciting development in this direction. Other times it will take the form of working on research or creative problems that bring support from the community. The growth in funded research and new writers and collaborative teams submitting proposals are measures of our success in this area. Other times it will take the form of applying our scholarly expertise to training or problem-solving for particular stakeholders. Our work in continuing education and customized training are measures of our success in this area and will provide new resources for our programs.
The new millenium is upon us (there, I worked it in, so you can stop waiting for it). Even though times are changing rapidly, we find ourselves well positioned to respond to those changes—even to take advantage of them. Responding to change as rapid and as radical as we are experiencing is never easy, but it’s not like we have any choice (considering the alternative). Frank Campanelli, Executive Vice President at Boston College, is supposed to have said, "The train is leaving. You will either be on it or in front of it, but you will be transformed." Last year was hard; all of us were challenged by the effort of transforming our curriculum to semesters and reinventing our general education program. And here I am back again this year, exhorting you "Once more unto the breach, dear friends!" But I promise you it will be worth it. As Jim Votruba, president of Northern Kentucky University put it, "People are walking around on playgrounds right now whose lives will be transformed by what we are doing."