Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Wrestling with History and Memory

As an Historian and Dean I have been watching with great interest the contested cultural and political debates surrounding history and memory. In our contemporary environment where the "Star Spangled Banner" has become a symbolic flashpoint around issues of equality and structural racism in the United States, where the American Alt-Right pushes for access to campus venues to spew provocative hate speech, and where monuments memorializing the Confederate cause and its leaders have become the foci of heated and impassioned debate and protest over both the nation’s past and its present (the “Silent Sam” controversy at the University of North Carolina being but one example), it is important that university communities across the country, especially those espousing the ideals of inclusion and mutual respect, embrace these tough conversations and employ them as tools for moving both their local communities and the nation as a whole forward.

A necessary first step, however, is a deep conversation about the differences between “History” and “Memory.” The “Silent Sam” controversy provides a case in point. This monument depicting an anonymous Confederate soldier sits in the heart of the University of North Carolina’s beautiful campus green in Chapel Hill. Dedicated in 1913, the monument has long been defended as a memorial to the honor and bravery of the UNC students who served in defense of their homes and their way of life. This read of the monument along with the fact that it does not depict any specific individual has long enabled its defenders to use “history and heritage” as reasons why the statue should not be removed. Others, of course, point to the fact that at the heart of that way of life was the institution of slavery and that the monument’s dedication in 1913 (at a time when Jim Crow and the debasement of African-Americans in the southern states was an established fact) stands as an intentional message to African-Americans that they are not welcomed in this space. Indeed, during the commemoration address given by Julian Carr (a North Carolina industrialist and former Confederate soldier) the speaker noted how he had, "horsewhipped a Negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds" near where the statue stood. The woman, he explained, had "publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady." How then do we disentangle the meaning/intent of this statue? Where do we draw the line between history and the memory that becomes attached to particular objects/sites?

A great deal of work has been done delineating the relationship between these two distinct ways of understanding the past—as they are different. My own understanding of these differences is beautifully captured in the work of the dean of historians exploring the Civil War and American memory, Yale Professor David Blight. In a 2006 essay included in the influential volume, Slavery and Public History, Blight wrote:

"History is what trained historians do, a reasoned reconstruction of the past rooted in research; it tends to be critical and skeptical of human motive and action, and therefore more secular than what people commonly call memory. History can be read by or belong to everyone; it is more relative, contingent on place, chronology and scale. If history is shared and secular, memory is often treated as a sacred set of absolute meanings and stories, possessed as the heritage or identity of a community. Memory is often owned; history is interpreted. Memory is passed down through generations; history is revised. Memory often coalesces in objects, sites, and monuments; history seeks to understand contexts in all their complexity. History asserts the authority of academic training and canons of evidence; memory carries the often more immediate authority of community membership and experience. In an essay about the slave trade and the problem of memory, Bernard Bailyn aptly stated memory’s appeal: “Its relation to the past is an embrace…ultimately emotional, not intellectual.” (p. 24)

These are very different ways, of course, to think about the past and they both offer different lenses through which to examine the current cultural landscape and they help us, I believe, to make better sense out of the various points of view manifest in the debate over “Silent Sam” and other similar sites/objects.

But why bring this up in a blog devoted to the College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters at the University of Michigan-Dearborn one might ask? The answer is simple, because this campus too has its own legacy and history to confront. No, we do not have any Confederate monuments adorning our campus, but the campus does sit on property once owned by Henry Ford, an industrialist noted for his vehement anti-Semitism, strong ethnocentrism, and his outright hostility to organized labor. Moreover, students daily drive to our campus along Hubbard Drive, a road named for Dearborn’s notoriously racist mayor, Orville Hubbard, who prided himself on keeping Dearborn “clean” and who famously employed federally funded urban renewal funds to try to prevent an Arab-American presence from establishing itself in southeastern Dearborn. This historical reality and the memories attached to those realities have long shaped peoples’ attitudes toward our campus and their sense of feeling welcome or not.

It is a point of great pride that this university has done so much to overcome this legacy and to build a new narrative around inclusiveness and respect. I am particularly proud of the outstanding work done by the faculty and students of the College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters in advancing this work. Their thoughtful conversations, their applied research around issues of disparity and memory, and their commitment to a full exploration of these uncomfortable realities, speaks volumes about the excellence of the education offered here, about the power of a diverse student body and the many differing perspectives that such a student body brings to light, and about the profound value of a broad education.

As contemporary debates make abundantly clear, there is still much more work that needs to be done to facilitate a meaningful and thoughtful conversation around these issues and around the nation’s legacy of race relations. This is, in fact, the work that, above all else, needs doing. Unfortunately, the road ahead will be paved with much tension and most likely, sadly, violence/conflict. I am profoundly grateful to work on a campus where such conversations are woven into the fabric of who we are and where we are able to engage in these conversations with mutual respect and tolerance.










Thursday, September 14, 2017

More work to do

The new academic year is underway and so too is the annual assault on the liberal arts and humanities. At a very recent Governor’s Conference on Postsecondary Education the Governor of the Commonwealth of Kentucky urged his fellow chief executives to approach their state university leaders and insist that they, “Find entire parts of your campus … that don’t need to be there. Either physically as programs, degrees that you’re offering, buildings that … shouldn’t be there because you’re maintaining something that’s not an asset of any value, that’s not helping to produce that 21st-century educated work force.” Sadly, such views are pervasive and widely held. I’ve given up counting the number of individuals I’ve encountered who smile wryly when I tell them about my history background.

At the same time, however, as recent events have clearly demonstrated (the revolting events in Charlottesville, the ongoing debates over sites of memory and the commemoration of the nation’s past, the ominous clouds on the global horizon, the onslaught of a natural world thrown out of kilter, etc., I would argue that a strong foundation in the humanities, arts and sciences are more important than ever. Absolutely we want to assist our students in preparing for the world of work. But even more than that, we want to prepare them to be successful in life and to be comfortable in the wider world into which they will be stepping.

Watching my own daughter’s recent experiences with the job market have only reinforced this belief. A double history and anthropology major as a undergrad (the apple did not fall far from the tree), she went on to earn a Master’s degree from the University of Chicago in Latin American Studies. Her familiarity with diverse methodological approaches to problems, her comfort with the ambiguity of the liberal arts where answers are not necessarily definitive, her strong communications skills, her analytical acumen, and her language skills make her a much in demand quantity. She has had no shortage of interviews and/or job opportunities. Why? Because the skill set that she possesses is well suited to the needs of today’s global world of work and they position her to operate in a more creative and less rigid manner than many others.

Though I have said it many times before, it bears restating—I am extremely proud of the transformative education provided by the College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters and have no qualms about stating very plainly that this is a part of the University of Michigan-Dearborn (and this is true of any other university) that absolutely “needs to be there.” There are lots of great things happening in CASL and I look forward to sharing them with you throughout the year.


Thursday, May 11, 2017

Building a New CASL

With CASL’s strategic plan now fully endorsed and in place the hard work of implementing our plan begins. Among the four priority areas identified in the plan one (Priority 4), in my view, looms large. Indeed, I would argue, that the overall success of the plan hinges on the college’s ability to make headway on this priority.

Priority 4. Enhance CASL’s Organizational Capacity
Central to CASL’s ability to meet all of the preceding strategic priorities is the need for the college to operate more efficiently and intentionally. The college’s organizational and financial structures have served CASL reasonably well in the past enabling the college to grow and flourish. The new realities of higher education, however, along with the recent erosion of CASL enrollments, requires a re-examination of our current practices with an eye toward rationality and deliberateness in the service of students, faculty, and the wider university community. Accordingly, the college views the enhancement of organizational capacities as a key prerequisite for the success of CASL’s strategic goals and for the college’s long-term health.

Over the many years of its existence CASL has been very successful on many fronts thanks to the great work of our faculty, staff, and students. Nevertheless, it is my view that the current college structure, which evolved in a haphazard and ad hoc manner, is not well suited to the current needs of our students, our faculty, or to the current higher education environment which require flexibility, nimbleness, and creativity.

With this in mind CASL is engaging in a review of its current organizational structure/culture with the end goal being the creation of a configuration for the college that that enables it to make the most of its rich human resources and of the creativity of our faculty and staff with a focus on goal orientation. Two groups of faculty are hard at work exploring possible organizational models for CASL. Their work will be shared with their faculty and staff colleagues on an ongoing basis and will be compiled and presented for a fuller discussion by the college when the fall academic term begins. It is far too early to say where this conversation may lead but I am excited that this dialog is underway and have been buoyed by the enthusiasm of the faculty engaged in this work. I am eager to see where this initiative leads and look forward to reporting out on the progress of this work.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Getting to graduation


One of the most difficult things that I have to grapple with as dean is meeting with the many students who find themselves depleted of financial resources just short of fulfilling their graduation requirements. This happens for a great many reasons – working to pay for their education prevents students from taking as many courses as they might like in semesters they are aid eligible; the necessity of using loans intended for their education to meet pressing family/personal expenses; changing majors which requires additional courses and expenses; the lack of aid to help defray the cost of summer courses which often results in unpaid balances and registration holds; or the student and/or his or her parent(s) simply do not have enough personal funds available to cover all educational costs for the semester - but the result is always the same; students (many of whom come from underrepresented groups and/or economically challenged populations) who drift away from the university without ever completing their degree. For these students the negative effects are double: they lack the credential needed to ensure a strong economic foundation for themselves and their family and they are denied the personal fulfillment of meeting an individual transformational goal.

Until last fall, I found myself emailing and phoning numerous campus partners looking for ways to keep these students enrolled and moving forward. Sometimes I was successful, but more often I was not. This situation changed dramatically during the fall semester when I brought the idea of an emergency fund (the CASL Get to Graduation Fund) to the members of my Dean’s Advisory Council. After hearing these stories Council members quickly pledged money to offer as matching funds to incentivize gifts to this fund on Giving Blueday, UM’s version of Giving Tuesday, a global day of giving following Thanksgiving. Response to this match was immediate and very positive and, in the course of one day, the college raised $15,000 to support these deserving students.

Once word of the fund spread (and it spread very quickly) I was immediately approached by a number of faculty, staff, and students asking about the funds. I am proud to announce that this semester the fund is helping 7 students complete their studies. I cannot even begin to say how profoundly grateful the students are for this expression of faith in their abilities. As one recent recipient noted,

“I was profoundly touched and overcome with gratitude upon receiving the Get to Graduation award. How can I possibly express my appreciation as you have altered my experience at the completion of my undergraduate studies? What a beautiful gift you have given me, thank you. On April 30, I will join in ceremony to recognize the culmination of sacrifice and dedication, a devotion to study, and the willingness and desire to meet a rigorous academic challenge. Because of your selfless act of kindness, the financial burden that held me in a state of worry and uncertainty has been lifted and I am free to enjoy, with appreciation, my final days under the tutelage of The University of Michigan-Dearborn. The Get to Graduation award is your investment, which will ultimately touch the lives of those who seek guidance in their darkest of times. I can only aspire to offer such selfless generosity to others as you have given me.”

I cannot wait to acknowledge and celebrate the achievements of this group of students at the April Commencement. I am very proud of their grit and am inspired by their determination. At the same time, I also know that there are many more CASL students facing similar circumstances and that the number of students finding themselves confronting similar challenges will only increase in the coming years. Accordingly, I will continue to make this fund a priority as I engage with potential donors and friends of the campus. Should you be interested in contributing to this fund you can find the link at: https://leadersandbest.umich.edu/find/#!/dearborn/umd-casl/student


Friday, December 2, 2016

Leveraging our differences

As I was quickly glancing through today’s Detroit Free Press I was stopped in my tracks by an article reporting that the state of Michigan stood as the number one state in the Midwest (and sixth overall) for bias crimes post the presidential election. While none of these reported incidents have transpired on the UM-Dearborn campus, I thought it important to take a moment to reiterate the college’s commitment to being an inclusive and welcoming place for all. That isn’t to say that we must always agree or that we will always speak with one voice. On the contrary, disagreement, tension, and divergent points of view are both important and necessary. Indeed, work by scholars such as Professor Scott Page (a colleague on the Ann Arbor campus) categorically demonstrates the inherent power of diversity (here meaning not just race, gender, sexual orientation, religion but also class, levels of education, life experiences, age, etc.) in moving problems toward resolution and with more satisfactory results. Taking stock of this proposition I think makes it clear that this is indeed the case. Surrounding oneself with only like minded individuals, or with individuals who look and think only as you do, tends to limit the range of possible viewpoints and possible resolutions offered up for discussion.

As Page frames it,
…diverse groups of people bring to organizations more and different ways of seeing a problem and, thus, faster/better ways of solving it. People from different backgrounds have varying ways of looking at problems, what I call “tools.” The sum of these tools is far more powerful in organizations with diversity than in ones where everyone has gone to the same schools, been trained in the same mold and thinks in almost identical ways. The problems we face in the world are very complicated. Any one of us can get stuck. If we’re in an organization where everyone thinks in the same way, everyone will get stuck in the same place. But if we have people with diverse tools, they’ll get stuck in different places. One person can do their best, and then someone else can come in and improve on it. There’s a lot of empirical data to show that diverse cities are more productive, diverse boards of directors make better decisions, the most innovative companies are diverse. Breakthroughs in science increasingly come from teams of bright, diverse people. That’s why interdisciplinary work is the biggest trend in scientific research.

For me, one of the most rewarding aspects of my professional life, and one of the attributes of this campus that I am most proud of is our diversity (broadly defined) and our commitment to inclusion. With this in mind I proudly write that CASL students, staff, faculty, and alumni are leaders and exemplars of these ideals and we are committed to abiding by a code of respect for others. In so doing we hope to set an example for civil discourse, an appreciation for the contributions of all, and the mutual respect that is central to a healthy society. And because the UM-Dearborn community is interwoven into the fabric of southeastern Michigan we aim to model responsible, respectful behavior and to use our influence in a positive manner to speak out against this tide of bias crime and intolerance and to educate those around us about the value and power of inclusion and diversity.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Future of Science at UM Dearborn

As the campus celebrates the opening of our newly remodeled science facility (now named the Natural Sciences Building) I thought it fitting for me to say something about our new facility. I cannot even begin to describe how radically our main science building has been transformed by this renovation. I could easily go on and on here detailing the number of research and teaching labs (there are 23), the character of our new classrooms they are leading edge), or the design of the building that enables us to showcase science live as it is happening. Indeed, that is exactly what I had planned to do. But then I received a truly inspiring email from my friend and colleague Dr. Marilee Benore. I found her description of the new building and its importance to this campus and our students to be immensely inspiring and so I decided instead to share some of her thoughts about this space with you.

As Marilee reminded me, my faculty colleagues in the Natural Sciences department, in keeping with a core value of a foundational liberal arts education, have always recognized that the smartest way to prepare future scientists, researchers and health professionals is by demonstrating and practicing the integration of the various disciplines. Rather than specializing in distinct and isolated areas and topics, the department has long demonstrated a commitment to collaborative teaching and research. Chemists work side by side with biologists, sharing teaching and laboratory strategies. Astonomers coordinate with physicists, bringing the excitement of the universe into everyday life. Crossing disciplines in CASL, behavioral biologists collaborate with students in psychology, geologists discover with anthropologists, and environmental scientists team up with screen studies faculty. In CASL, we long ago recognized what others are only noting now- problems are often solved by collaboration of individuals who think differently and bring distinct foundational theory to the problem. Students will be well grounded in foundational science, but able to converse with others, as they will have the advantage of a liberal arts core.

This is very obvious in the building that we are now opening. One of its salient features, for instance, is a new integrated Bio Physiology Lab-which will be shared by faculty and students across biology, the behavioral sciences, engineering, and the College of Education, Health, and Human Services! I cannot stress how path breaking this is: space is at a premium on every campus but the university and the NSCI faculty recognized the opportunities that would result from a shared collaborative lab. Students could bridge the gap in their understanding of genetics, behavior, and physiology, just to name a few areas. For example- Why is the hormone cortisol released after stress? Can we test the neurological and physiological markers that align and confirm that health issue?

Above all else, this building was designed to enhance that teamwork, and serve as a model for students. The collaborative spaces and recitation rooms were designed so that students could hone critical thinking skills and work with peers and faculty. The camaraderie of teamwork, the delight of solving problems, the support of peers, the mentorship of faculty and the joy that is borne with the recognition that you “freaking love science*”........ that will be the heart and soul of this building, and the legacy it will build.

Our science curriculum is a laboratory rich experience, that is best experienced when faculty themselves are in both the classroom and labs. Their presence in the lab allows them to mentor and nurture future scientists. The NSB contains everything we need to reach a broader and more diverse set of students. The addition of teaching labs means more flexibility in offerings, thus more convenience for all students: traditional FTIACs, working parents, and returning students. As another faculty member related, “I love the fact that we have nice big research labs; the one I have now is probably twice the size of my old one. Collaborative meetings with groups of students will be much more possible, given the space, the whiteboards, etc. Moreover, more than 1-2 students can be in there working at the same time and not run into each other.” Further, many of the classrooms include lecture capture technology, which will enhance our ability to use online tools. Online tools will allow more working students to complete their education.

The new labs were designed with the best in teaching and learning. Following the guidelines of Project Kaleidoscope on learning spaces, the labs were designed to be flexible- for future needs and changes in instrumentation. It will be far easier to engage students with the most updated tools of the trade. An example of this will be the iWorxs stations in the new shared labs. These modules can be used in the teaching lab and in research to study various physiological parameters.

The science of the future will not rely solely on individuals and discovery, but rather on teams comprised of individuals with diverse backgrounds, who can work together to tackle and untangle scientific problems and offer promising new pathways forward. This building and its spaces for learning and discovery were designed to support faculty research and the success of our students in doing precisely that.
With that in mind, let me echo Chancellor Little’s heartfelt thanks to all of those who made this project a reality. The investment made in our faculty and students will be returned many times over to the university and the taxpayers of Michigan. I eagerly await all of the great things that this building will inspire.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

I Have a Hypothesis


An eager arm shot into the air; “I have a hypothesis,” the student boldly offered.

Nothing new here, I can see many of you thinking; this goes on in classrooms every day. This classroom, however, was anything but typical. This CASL student and her peers were working in the field at Djúpalónssandur beach in Iceland’s Snæfellsnes National Park to interpret and understand a geologic formation that lay before them.

I had the amazing good fortune to accompany Professors Jacob Napieralski and Mark Salvatore and their geology students as they traveled across Iceland applying the theoretical information learned in the classroom to real life scenarios that they encountered throughout Iceland’s otherworldly landscape. The trip provided me with a deeper appreciation for the impact of hands on learning and the vital importance of insuring that all CASL students have access to this sort of impactful experience.

When the trip began students cautiously approached the site under consideration and asked simple, direct questions. Very quickly, however, as their confidence built and as they dug deeper into their academic tool kits their approach became much more sophisticated and they began to think long and hard about not only what they were seeing but also about why they were thinking along the lines that they were thinking. It was here where the rubber hit the road. It was here that the many abstract things that the students had learned in their reading, lectures, and labs suddenly and tangibly became real. Studying the orientation of geologic formations, plotting these against fault lines, and reading the layers of the rock strata in front of them, brought all of this learning sharply into focus and enabled the students to interpret what they were seeing and to better understand the geologic history that shaped a particular area and the geologic forces still at work. That this geologic history also shaped the human history of Iceland did not pass unnoticed by our students. Very quickly geologic history and human history merged together and yet another body of disciplinary knowledge assumed greater relevance than many previously imagined.

This is learning at its finest and it is what we strive to provide for each and every CASL student. Indeed, ensuring widespread access to this sort of opportunity (travel abroad, field work, mentored research, internships and co-op, etc.) has been a priority for my office since I became dean in 2013. Nothing could be more important for our students and nothing differentiates an UM-Dearborn education from its peers more than this practical approach to learning. That active scholars whose research is shaping the field of study that the students are engaged in are also facilitating this learning only enhances the experience and the impact of the work.

In a world where the liberal arts and humanities are increasingly under assault as superfluous luxuries it is all the more imperative that CASL remain committed to this proven pedagogy and to helping our students to see and appreciate the relevance of what they have been exposed to across the spectrum in their classrooms. Doing so will empower our students to be the confident, thoughtful, and creative thinkers that our modern world needs.