Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Invitation to Help us Shape CASL's Future

A group of CASL faculty, staff, and students have been busily engaged in planning for the launch of the college’s strategic planning process. Specifically, the group’s charge is to identify important questions that we need to bring to the CASL community, to identify important data/information that we need to share to inform our discussion of these questions, and to think about how best to engage all of CASL and its varied constituencies in the planning process. To assist us in framing the conversation, we now seek your input via this short survey: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/CASLCommSPSurveyB The survey will remain open through December 3 so please be sure to respond by then. Your responses will help us understand your perspectives and vision as well as how you would like to participate in the formal planning process. Many of my earlier posts suggest why strategic planning is an imperative at this moment in time. Two years of declining enrollments and a tightening financial picture for the college, growing media hostility toward the liberal arts and their relevance for today’s students, and an intensely competitive higher education market serve as important external reasons for engaging in strategic planning. But even more important are the opportunities that strategic planning offers us. Our college has been infused with new faculty and staff talent, we continue to draw talented and engaged students to our majors, and our alumni are making a name for themselves and for CASL is a wide array of professions. When coupled to the deep institutional knowledge and rich history of success embodied in our veteran faculty and staff we have the makings for a creative and empowering re-imagination of the college and of its priorities and future direction. Strategic planning will allow for those conversations, will prompt new ideas, and will enable us to tell CASL’s story in ways that are both meaningful to our community and understandable to those outside of CASL. As I look at the college and contemplate its future I am very excited about the opportunities that I see. The things I’ve come to value the most about my own time in CASL - the small classes, the engaged faculty, the opportunities for mentored research - are all still very much a part of what we do. It is my belief that the educational experience that we offer our students parallels, in these attributes, the education that students receive at smaller liberal arts colleges. I can readily imagine CASL embracing this model, aligning our structure and resources in pursuit of it, and becoming a public (and thus much more affordable) alternative version of this model. Doing so would enable us to tell a compelling story and would position us to grow in ways that are consistent with our values. A few words about our timeline CASL will begin our formal strategic planning process in the Winter term of 2015 with a goal of completing a plan by the end of the 2015 calendar year. Our planning process will look at the longer term (5-10 years) as well as the shorter term, and we expect our action plan to include both initiatives which require a longer timeline and improvements which can be undertaken immediately – even during the planning process. Your participation is critical to the success of this process: CASL is not defined by just one group or another, but by all of us together. Thank you for participating. I am very much looking forward to our collective work on behalf of CASL.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Commodification of Higher Education

Last week marked the beginning of the training process for the CASL faculty, staff, and students who will be leading the college’s strategic planning discussions over the ensuing academic year. It was an energizing and inspiring event that reinforced what I already knew—that the College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters is an incredibly special place. Among the many topics discussed within the group was one that has long worried me—whether students should be thought of as customers? The university certainly talks about students in terms of head count and credit hours generated and students do pay a fee (tuition) to enroll in their classes. Many also view their diplomas as credentials paid for to ensure access to good paying jobs. There are also many in the university who talk about providing good “customer service” to our students or who use the “customer experience” as a foundational paradigm to implement changes. These are worthy frameworks to be sure. We want our students to have the best experience possible at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Still, this sort of “transactional” language also rubbed many in the room the wrong way. A college education was not merely something that one purchases nor is it something that can (or should) be imagined purely in vocational terms. Of course we want all of our students to be happy and gainfully employed once they graduate from the university. At the same time, as graduates of CASL make especially clear, there is often no way of predicting precisely the direction that one’s life and career (or, more appropriately today, careers) will go. I am certain that my History degree did not train me in a direct way to become a college dean. It did, however, teach me to think in a critical and analytical way and it taught me how to write and speak clearly. Likewise, the Economics courses that I took prepared me to think about forces at both the micro and macro levels that must be considered in making decisions that impact the financial future of the college. Do I use those science courses in my day-to-day work? Absolutely, a day does not pass where I do not test some hypothesis made about any number of things against data collected or against real life experiments run. In short, it all matters and it is all relevant. It thus pains me to see how much the consumer mentality has crept into higher education. Many examples spring to mind: grade disputes (I paid for that A) and the correlate, grade inflation (who wants to pay for bad grades and what will that mean for enrollment); the now overdone stories about rock climbing walls and hard wood floor, granite counter top standard housing units; the focus on university branding over education; the demonization of the liberal arts and the growing tendency to treat higher education as little more than expensive vocational training (sorry Walsh College—those live, breathe business commercials drive me mad! Though, as you can see, they are effective.); etc. These are the very real forces at work in today’s higher education landscape and they are forces that threaten the core of what we do. Therefore, I was beyond gratified to hear the nuanced dialog about the nature of education at our training workshop. For me, the discussion in the room was reassuring and inspired. As we plan for our future it is clear that CASL faculty, staff, and students are committed to the principle of a broadly framed and expansive liberal arts education and to providing each and every CASL student with an opportunity to learn, explore, grow, and transform. They are committed to the belief that an education is not just something you buy, it is something that you engage in, shape, and interpret. As the day closed I was reminded of a quote that I had tucked away in a drawer during a recent version of this debate as it is playing out in our k-12 public school system, though it is relevant to CASL’s works as well: “Excuse me, but I thought education was a public and social good, like the environment, democracy or the armed forces. It's not a cellphone. Different considerations apply.” I am looking forward to the work ahead on strategic planning and to ensuring that CASL keeps its eyes firmly fixed on this lofty goal.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Pomp and Circumspect

Let me open this entry by congratulating the CASL graduates of 2014! Your hard work and effort have paid off and the faculty and staff of the college, along with the alums who walked across that stage before you are very proud. We cannot wait to see where your futures lead and look forward to boasting of your many accomplishments. The end of the academic year is always an exciting time in CASL. Awards ceremonies, Commencement, the Sargon Partners CASL Student Research Showcase, Meeting of the Minds, and numerous other events showcase the many accomplishments of our students, faculty, and staff. They also have me reflecting upon what it is that makes the College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters such a special place. Certainly, similar degree programs exist at many other universities throughout the area. Likewise, our facilities mirror what you can find on many other campuses. In thinking back on my own experience in CASL, both as a student and as a faculty member, what stands apart for me was the ability to interact with caring faculty and staff. For those of us familiar with CASL this will not come as any great surprise. Time and time again students, their parents, alumni, and friends of the college share with me stories of the accessible, caring faculty and staff in the college. Indeed, it takes little prompting from me to get people to share a personal story about their favorite professor or staff member or about the professor or staff member who gave that extra effort to help them out. Inevitably, they report how this one individual transformed their lives forever. A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education based upon a Gallup-Purdue Index Report confirms the importance of these connections and demonstrates what UM-Dearborn CASL students and alum already know: “College graduates, whether they went to a hoity-toity private college or a midtier public, had double the chances of being engaged in their work and were three times as likely to be thriving in their well-being if they connected with a professor on the campus who stimulated them, cared about them, and encouraged their hopes and dreams.” This is certainly true for me. I will always be grateful to professors such as Don Proctor, Pater Amann, and Dan Moerman who took the time to mentor and encourage a timid, uncertain student and to point me toward a future career in academe. Without them, and others like them, I cannot imagine where I would be today. I know that this is true for all of our students and alums. So, as the academic year winds to a close and we reflect back upon another school year come and gone, I invite you to reflect back on your own experiences here in CASL. I’d love to hear about that one person who changed your life and would encourage you to reach out to them to let them know how much their mentorship has meant to you. I know that there is nothing that they could hear that could make them happier. Enjoy your summer!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Signs of Spring: CASL Faculty Honors

As the academic calendar reaches the home stretch (usually a sign that spring is here--here's hoping!) the university community takes time out to honor the achievements of its faculty, staff, and students over the last year. It is a tremendous honor for me to announce that three CASL faculty have been recognized for their achievements: Jack Nelson, LEO Lec II in the Department of Natural Sciences, received the campus’ Distinguished Teaching Award in the Non-Tenure Track Category; History Professor Pamela Pennock is the recipient of the Distinguished Teaching Award in the Tenured faculty category; and alumnus and Professor of Mathematics, Joan Remski, is receiving the Distinguished Service Award. This recognition is well deserved in all three cases. Both CASL and the university as a whole have been enriched through the efforts of these three individuals. Recognition of this sort comes all too infrequently for our faculty but when it does come it reminds us all just how committed and talented our college community is. The efforts of these three individuals, while rising to a level meriting university-wide recognition, are not at all unique. Their faculty colleagues throughout the college, many of whom were also nominated for these awards as well as others, are absolutely committed to the teacher/scholar model and to exposing our students to both cutting edge research and a rigorous, engaged classroom. They also give untold hours of their time working to make the college, the university, and our broader community a better place. I hope that you will join me in congratulating these award winners but also in extending a big thank you to all CASL faculty and staff for their hard work and effort and for their devotion to making CASL the absolute best liberal arts college in the state. Well done!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

CASL: A Value Added Proposition

It has become something of a standard paradigm for critics of contemporary higher education or those who favor particular educational reforms to lambast the liberal arts as irrelevant indulgences that do not prepare students for the realities of today’s workplace. All of us can undoubtedly recall some news report or dinner conversation where someone jokingly references some seemingly silly academic study about why people blush or where some unfortunate student who obtained degrees (often multiple degrees) in the humanities is mired in unimaginable debt and struggling to eek out a living and pay off their loans working three jobs in the service sector. Indeed, recently, some state legislatures have debated the merits of charging a higher tuition rate for “extraneous” disciplines such as Philosophy, Art History, or English. Why encourage students to waste their time (and money), the argument goes, in classes that will not prepare them for the world of work? Such thinking, I would contend, is both shortsighted and ill informed. “Of course you’d say that,” I can hear many of you mumbling. “You are the Dean of a college of liberal arts. What else are you going to say?” I’d respond this way no matter the context because I absolutely believe in the value of a liberal arts education as do most of the nation’s employers. Year in and year out, surveys of the nation’s employers reveal that they are seeking potential employees who can think critically, who can communicate in both written and verbal form, and who are comfortable with ambiguity and creative problem solving; the precise skills that the liberal arts inculcate within our students. Working in messy disciplines where definitive answers are impossible to identify and having to marshal evidence and carefully construct and articulate a thesis are at the heart of what we do. When I think back upon my own academic training (I am an historian) and professional life, I know that these are exactly the skills that have enabled me to adapt to, and navigate, any number of widely diverse circumstances. They are also skills that I employ daily. It gives me great pride to know that the students in CASL are being provided with these necessary skills and that the college is positioning them to thrive in their professional lives. So like Henry David Thoreau, I would encourage all students who are considering a liberal arts education to “go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life that you have imagined.”

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Setting a Course

Not being a particularly profound thinker I was more than a little intimidated when I was approached about blogging in my new capacity as CASL Dean. Still, I thought, I should give it a try so I sat down to blog. My first attempt was worse than feared as I took the easy bait and began to pound out the standard paean heralding the beginning of the new academic year; complete with trees festooned in bright reds and oranges and the standard encouraging of students, staff, and faculty alike to embrace the new beginning that the academic year marks and to relish the excitement and the feeling that everything is possible. While all fine and good that cookie cutter approach just didn't seem right for a first foray into the world of blogging. My next attempt bordered on the absurd as I engaged in mental gymnastics and tried to make meaning out of an erudite piece of doggerel I stumbled upon in a letter I had stuffed in a dusty file marked, "erudite doggerel to structure obscure talks around." Well ok, the folder is actually labeled "future research projects" but I sometimes wonder what I was thinking when I put such things in the folder. Needless to say, blog draft number two quickly joined its older sibling in my trash bin. Finally, I decided to "keep it real" and to be true to who I am and what I am comfortable with. So here goes… As I have embarked upon any number of new chapters in my life I have always held close something an aunt once said to me. Before I reveal her pearl of wisdom, though, let me set the stage. It was sometime in the late 1970s and I had been invited to stay with my aunt and uncle in northern Michigan. My uncle had just retired from the Rouge plant and he and my aunt had moved into their dream house on twenty secluded acres near Boyne City. I absolutely loved that summer and will forever be grateful for the opportunity provided for a city kid to experience the north woods. One particularly stunning summer day my aunt and uncle decided to take me over to Lake Michigan. I was excited beyond belief at the prospect of seeing a body of water that I could not see across. My first reaction to seeing the lake, however, was completely unexpected. As we gazed out at the vastness of the lake, I noticed a lone individual slowly paddling a canoe out on the horizon. Beyond the fact that the scene conjured up memories of Hemmingway’s Nick Adams short stories that I so loved (also set in northern Michigan) I recall standing on the shore looking out at that individual and feeling utterly overwhelmed, anxious, and fearful. "It's so big," I recall saying, "how can anyone know which way to go out there?” “I wonder,” I mused, “how many people have been lost out there?" I know that I have felt that way on any number of occasions as I have embarked upon a new venture: beginning college, deciding to go to grad school, getting married, watching the birth of my two daughters, becoming dean, starting a blog (just to name a few). How do I find my way in this unfamiliar and boundless environment? Will I become lost as I try to navigate these waters? My aunt’s reply was perfect. A simple woman of great faith, compassion and hope, my aunt, who never even attended high school, put her arm around me, squeezed my shoulder and said, "maybe a better way to think about what you are seeing is to focus on the possibilities that the lake holds. Anything is possible out there. There is nothing to prevent you from going any direction you want to go or from trying anything that you want to try." I felt a calming sensation move over me at the moment and my outlook was forever altered. I'll be the first to admit that new situations still trigger a great deal of anxiety, fear and self doubt but I also know that they bring with them tremendous opportunity and possibility. I look forward to my own paddle and I wish you much success and enlightenment in charting your own course this year.