Douglas G. Knerr, Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, described his thoughts on higher education and the University of Michigan-Flint August 31 at the Academic Affairs Convocation. The full speech:
Thank you very much for your warm welcome. From my first contact with UM-Flint as a candidate, this community has been an inspiration for me personally and professionally. I look forward to many years of service and to meeting each of you in the coming weeks and months.
I want to take a moment to offer my special thanks to Keith Moreland for his distinguished service as interim dean of the School of Health Professions and Studies. I look forward to working with Keith as he pursues his upcoming academic and community projects following his sabbatical. Please join me in a round of applause in appreciation of Keith’s dedicated and outstanding service.
I also want to recognize Susan Gano-Phillips and Donna Fry for their willingness to serve as interim deans of their respective units. Interim dean is one of the most difficult assignments in higher education and I thank them personally and on behalf of the institution for their service, and pledge to support their leadership to the fullest. Let’s give them a big round of applause.
Convocation is a special time to reflect, celebrate, anticipate, and reaffirm the values that have brought us to this place at this time. It is a reaffirmation of our founding, uniting the best of a University of Michigan education with the enduring commitment to the prosperity, vitality, and transformation of our students, our city and our region.
The core of our enterprise—the reason we are here—is teaching and learning at the highest levels of academic quality. It is the fundamental promise to our many stakeholders. Let me say that I am so impressed with the quality of academics on this campus. Each day I learn of additional ways in which the faculty embrace the challenges of one of the most difficult jobs around. Congratulations on your achievements, both individually and collectively.
Over my career and throughout many new initiatives, blue ribbon panels, and strategic plans faculty have asked me what they can do to help. “Create more committees,” I say. No, of course, I say, “be wonderful in the classroom.” Be the professor that you remember fondly, the one that changed your perspective on the world, the one that gave you the gifts you most cherish as a professional, the one that brought out your best and made it better than you ever thought it could be.
To me, that’s what is so great about this profession—the infinite paths of learning we create for our students, to teach content, yes, but to inspire in our students and in each other new ways of knowing, understanding, and navigating successfully in the world—the world we face today and the one we will face in the future.
It’s one of the best jobs in the world, I think, and yet we, as a collective faculty in American higher education, seem less than ecstatically happy.
The pressures on universities, the calls for higher quality, lower costs, more value, deeper engagement, better outcomes, and the general increased scrutiny over our work intersect in some way each day in our classrooms. Faculty feel the pressures of the changing political economy around higher education in a very personal as well as professional way. I know I do. And we all have choices in how we react.
We can mourn the past, or put the past under glass as a memento of the good old days; we can freeze at the pace and scale of the changes we face in the present; or we can thoughtfully engage the future as active and creative scholars, learners, and teachers. Across higher education we can see in full view the range of these options being played out on campuses near and far, and we can certainly see the consequent results for institutions that make less than optimal choices.
One of the key attractors for me to UM-Flint was that that it is a place where the seemingly impossible becomes possible for our students and our community each and every day. I want to work at a place that believes in the higher purposes of higher education, a place that is an instrument of justice and equity in society and an agent of transformation for people and cities and regions. I want to work at a place that provides the inspiration for other organizations that are struggling to define a role in our society beyond the profit motive. A place dedicated to providing solutions to what ails us, and divides us, as a society in ways that only colleges and universities can do.
I know that UM-Flint is a place that believes in itself and its mission because this faculty believes in itself and in its ability to deliver on our institutional promises for all who come into contact with our community.
Another answer I give to faculty who ask how best to help an institution is—figure out what inspires you, and demonstrate that inspiration in your classroom, your scholarship, and your service…and make sure all of that is perfectly aligned to the goals and aspirations of your department, your college, and your university…and make sure you do that at the highest levels of quality all of the time…and be nice to each other while you’re doing it (it really is a very hard job).
The stakes for doing all of those things successfully are very high. Everything in the university is referential to the faculty’s ability to envision and execute a collective and collaborative vision for learning that distinguishes the institution among an increasing number of competing peer institutions and, unfortunately, poser institutions. I can rarely turn on the TV without an advertisement showing happy consumers of commoditized degrees. A question in the public’s mind is, what’s the difference?
We must, and we can, demonstrate our difference, separating out what naturally comes to us from being maize and blue—which is a lot—but that is definitional and not necessarily defining. What is compelling, identifiable, comprehensive, enduring, and attainable across the academic profile of UM-Flint? How do we live that in all the dimensions of our complex enterprise, and how do we demonstrate that to anyone who encounters us casually or intentionally?
I don’t believe that any academic unit, or any academic support unit, can do that alone or by external directive. The imperative is for collaboration, and the office of the provost is a nexus point for collaboration and continuity. Those of you who have worked with me so far know that my primary focus is on the line of instruction.
To assure that learning in every venue is occurring at the highest levels, that we are measuring learning in sophisticated ways, that we are living it outside the confines of the classroom experience in congruence with our mission, that we are continually improving it based on innovative practice and market imperative, that we are properly resourced to attain our goals, and that academic leadership at all levels is focused on providing the best possible environments for faculty to excel and students to succeed.
Aligning our shared values with our shared intent in real time is a difficult proposition. While there are many paths to success, it will remain elusive without truth, trust, and respect. Those I pledge to you as foundations of my provostship, and those will guide us as we center excellence in learning and teaching in all that we do. The core of this enterprise is teaching and learning, for which you and I are the owners, and the stewards. And to whom much is given, much is expected.
My sense is that without a clear understanding of those expectations we can all too easily retreat to a place that is less than optimal for our students and ourselves. Here are three of my favorite reasons to believe in our future.
We are in service to our students. Their success is our success; their challenges are our challenges. We are key participants in a complex relationship that takes a number of forms from the sublime to the sometimes less than sublime. Our expectations for excellence cannot waiver. When we admit a student, we make a solemn promise and shared commitment to deliver the best of learning—UM-Flint style—relentlessly and with the highest expectations, through graduation and beyond.
We are in service to our community. It is our heritage; it is our home. And we must be at home here, bringing to this wonderful community all the rootedness and all the vibrancy that creates pride of place. The success of our city and region is our success. When we focus on being the best university we can be, we extend our excellence, creativity, energy, vitality, inspiration, and compassion as a matter of course beyond the boundaries of our campus.
We are in service to each other. It is foundational. Higher learning occurs in relationship. Our students need substantive knowledge, but they also must know how to be savvy in the real world with that knowledge, and they must be centered in their lives to be free of the noise that impedes their ability to learn. Institutions prosper with that same balance, and strong bonds between us create a culture of excellence and execution, as well as joyfulness and kindness and caring, that prepares us and empowers us to face any challenge together.
We bring these and other expectations forward to achieve the vision that the Chancellor has laid before us. Her agenda will ensure excellence in all that we do and make certain that we will deliver on the promise of this special place.
There is no other way to accomplish this agenda than to declare our beliefs and our intentions, and then to act on them together—flawlessly, passionately, consistently, and with purpose.
It is the privilege of a lifetime to serve this institution. I pledge to listen actively, attentively, and respectfully to all members of this community as we engage and accomplish the goals that the Chancellor has set out for us.
We are teachers, we are learners, and we are doers.
Be kind. Be smart. Be ambitious. Be courageous. Be bold. Begin.
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