Becoming What We Are--Part III

Remarks to the Graduate Faculty 8/24/99

Tony Filipovitch


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:

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."

So, there are some things we will be doing this year to respond to the challenges we face:

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."