pdf version

“The Next 60”
Provost Douglas Knerr

This afternoon I want to spend some time reflecting on our lives as faculty members on this campus at this time in our history and lay out some opportunities for the coming academic year and beyond.

As we head into the 60th year of the University of Michigan-Flint, I’d like to take a moment to recognize the efforts of all who have gone before us.  There is an unbroken line of dedication and commitment in the faculty that has sustained this campus through 60 years of significant challenge and change.  We remember, salute, honor, and celebrate those who have paved the way for our success, those who gave the best of themselves to this institution, those who believed in the future of this city and its citizens, and those whose legacy is our challenge.

We are a young institution.  Cambridge University celebrated its 60th in 1269, Harvard its 60th in 1696, and Ann Arbor its 60th in 1877.  Although we are young, we have accomplished much.  We could spend the next year listing accomplishments of this campus, but I prefer to apply the Bailey Analysis (George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life) and ask, what if UM-Flint had not been here?

This institution’s role in the progress of the city and region is clear and it is immeasurable.  What if UM-F had left with the auto plants?  Or hadn’t been here through the city’s many crises?  Think about the physical growth of the campus; the impact on the urban landscape; the reframing of life in downtown Flint and the surrounding communities.  The economic ripple effect alone is staggering.

And the intellectual effects are equally staggering.  I wonder how many ideas have been pondered or questions have been asked and answered on this campus in the past 60 years?  Especially “is this going to be on the test?” from students, or, “why in the world is the administration doing that?” from faculty.

This campus has graduated about 40,000 students and has employed thousands of faculty since its founding.  That’s a lot of questions and answers that have shaped the intellectual lives of our students, led them to pathways and to aspirations never imagined, to new opportunities that transformed them, their families, their communities, and enabled them to live fulfilling lives of meaning and impact.

That’s an aggregate description, but I also think about an individual student in the first graduating class.  When they reflect on the trajectory of their life, how would they assess the impact of their education at UM-F, the impact of the intellectual spark that a faculty member provided at just the right moment and in just the right way?

There’s no method to value the real impact of that contribution, except perhaps to value and to honor the extraordinary relationship between faculty and student that produces those moments each and every day on our campus.

So, let’s take ourselves 60 years into the future.  What will our legacy be for the students about to start classes this year?  What will they think about UM-Flint in 2076?  How will the decisions we make today assure that they have a place in that future world that is full of meaning and influence and purpose and success?

Here are some of the things that we know.  The next 60 years will be lived out in an increasingly chaotic and disrupted landscape of higher education, which is of course a reflection of deeper dislocations in society.  And our campus will unquestionably continue to have a front row seat to every major higher ed challenge.

So, how will we best future-proof our institution?

What are our ideas to address disruption, to embrace the unknown and the unknowable?  The Princetonian F. Scott Fitzgerald said that the test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.  That’s a good intellectual trait and a sound habit of mind for those institutions who don’t enjoy the rarified position of Princeton.  And that’s not such a bad idea for Princeton as well, which celebrated its 60th in 1806.

Perhaps one way to look prospectively is to examine the intersections of our lives at the institution and the lives of our students at the institution.

An interesting study entitled The Differentiated University argues that the time-honored classifications of students fail to capture the nuance and the diversity of today’s students.

The study identifies six major student segments, all of which I think we’ll recognize.  The first is Aspiring Academics (our high achieving students); the second is Coming of Agers (they want to be here, but they have no idea why they are here); the third is Career Starters (they want job skills as fast as possible); the fourth is Career Accelerators (seeking additional credentials in their current field); the fifth is Industry Switchers (seeking new credentials for new fields); and the sixth is Academic Wanderers (un-focused, often unhappy, existing at the margins of our classrooms and our campus).

So which one is most meaningful to us?  Which one do we like the best, or the least?  A whopping 84% of all institutions report that they do not have the mix of students that they desire.  Reflecting on my administrative career in this light, I can better understand the restless and relentless institutional striving for the perfect combination of increased revenue and purity of mission just beyond the rainbow.

The advice given by the study is three-fold.  Deeply understand the segments you want to serve, develop targeted high-value academic programs and services, and deploy them with vigor, precision, and joy.

I’ve sat at Convocations for many years and heard about the future of higher education and the challenges it brings, and truthfully it mostly depressed the hell out of me.  But the good news is that—despite all the ridiculous criticism of us levied by those who aren’t us—faculty are perfectly prepared for the future.  Always have been, always will be.  We’re thinkers and problem-solvers.  The future of higher ed is not an easy problem, but all the better.

And, we already have an ace in the hole at UM-Flint, which is that our students say that the core strength of this university is the faculty.  Particularly the individualized attention we provide, our willingness to help students outside the classroom, our expertise and passion about our subjects, and our ability to counsel and support them throughout their lives.  One student comment has stayed with me: “professors here ask you what you want to achieve, then offer the help to get you there.”

I’m going to take us on a brief tour of some interesting ideas about optimizing the student/faculty relationship, and we will see that dedication and willingness embedded in what can be a powerful future-proofing toolkit.  None of these ideas are new, but, executed well, I think have potential for the future of UM-Flint.

Articulated by Stanford University (whose 60th was in 1951), the first of four compelling ideas is Purpose Learning.  Students declare a mission, not a major.  They couple their disciplinary pursuits with the purpose that ignites their interest.  “I’m a biology major” is replaced by “I’m learning human biology to eliminate world hunger.”  Or, “I’m learning Computer Science and Political Science to rebuild how citizens engage with their governments.”

Another is Axis Flip, which emphasizes learning around common and transferable skills to help students interpret, navigate, and synthesize the growing world of information.  Instead of building foundations solely in a unique discipline, students master skills and competencies, which become building blocks that can be arranged and translated across a variety of work contexts throughout their lifetimes.

Axis Flip creates instructional nodes around competencies such as Scientific Analysis, Social Inquiry, Moral & Ethical Reasoning, Aesthetic Interpretation, or Creative Confidence to build unique courses and academic units.  Faculty are rewarded for building a portfolio of courses that span the competencies.  This is interesting to me because it’s gen ed “all in,” which is really intriguing for our community connected mission, even though our areas of emphasis might be a bit different.

These two ideas seem like good crosswalks between the integration of a fulfilling and meaningful faculty life and fulfilling and meaningful student life.  The classroom itself becomes an accurate reflection of the creative connections needed to drive authentic learning and unleash faculty creativity across disciplines.

Another potential future-proofing tool is the Open Loop, which addresses the frequency that students change careers in the new economy and their need for advanced learning at unpredictable periods throughout their lives.  The trick here is to chill out about the entry and exit point for learning, and this is a hard one because so much emphasis is placed on time-based performance metrics over quality of learning-based performance metrics.

Higher ed sometimes has a hard time legitimizing legitimate patterns of learning when they don’t fit the monetized framework we know as the course, the credit hour, the semester.  Institutions that can de-stigmatize and operationalize open loop learning—an example might be a season pass to any physical or virtual campus learning space—will capitalize on already shifted patterns of learning taking place anytime and anywhere across the globe.

A complement to Open Loop is Adaptive Learning, which also rejects the external and sometimes arbitrary controls on the timing and quantification of learning.  It is deployed through three phases:  calibration (determining the starting point of learning, because it’s different for all of us); elevation (the authentic acquisition and reflection of knowledge and learning); and activation (the application of knowledge in multiple domains and places).

So, clearly, I believe that future-proofing our institution connects directly to future-proofing our students a day from now, a year from now, and decades out.  And, I know we have, in the aggregate, all the tools that we need to be successful in the next 60 years.

But as our Spring commencement speaker Astronaut Story Musgrave said, “what are you going to do with that?”

And it is indeed in the doing.  There are three main areas in which we can future-proof with faculty in the lead.  They are, from my perspective:  1) Reappointment, Promotion, and Tenure Standards; 2) Curricular Innovation and Enhancement; and, 3) encompassing all of these, and so much more, is Governance.

I realize that there is consideration and action around all of these currently, but I believe greater coherence and intentionality needs to follow each.  Therefore, I will be announcing faculty-wide task forces to lead us in reform in these areas as part of the campus strategic planning process that the Chancellor has announced.

First, we must—must—must reform and reframe our Reappointment, Tenure and Promotion standards as an academic whole.  We must speak with a unified voice that defines the essential core of this community, which is the successful UM-Flint faculty member at all the traditional career waypoints and perhaps more.

At consideration is the balance between the valuation of teaching, research and service and our valuation of multidimensional diversity.  A common understanding of this balance is key, both in the aggregate for our type of institution, but also to fully maximize the individual potential of every faculty member.

And within the balance, I see a tremendous opportunity in the domain of research and creative endeavor.  I pledge the resources to achieve the vision of the faculty, chairs, and deans to enhance research and creative enterprise on this campus.  Today I promise an additional $2000 for each tenured or tenure track faculty specifically for research or creative work for this academic year, from my office.  But money alone won’t get us there.

As Tom Wrobel suggested to me, perhaps we need signs to place on our office doors saying “Do Not Disturb, Scholarship in Progress.”  I couldn’t agree more that saying it is a good way to start living it, and valuing it.  Leveraging our connections to Ann Arbor is another way to move forward, and Ken Sylvester and the Deans Council are working to connect Flint faculty with initiatives such as MIDAS, mCubed, MICHR, MTRAC, and FastForward (if you don’t know what those are please contact me).

Additionally, Deans Johnson, Fry, Gano-Phillips, and Director Paula Nas are working broadly on entrepreneurship, incubation and acceleration research and with our innovation partners Genesys and Skypoint.  And Profs. Selig and Johnson-Lawrence with their co-founded Healthy Flint Research Coordinating Center are connecting UM Ann Arbor, MSU, and our community partners, to name just a few.

These are part of an ever-expanding array of possibilities that span the entire range of our disciplines.  What I’ve heard in the last week alone makes me think:  Let’s be really bold.  Let’s say that in the next 20 years there will be a Nobel Prize winner—or the equivalent award across our disciplines—from the UM-Flint faculty.

Curricular Innovation and Enhancement is our next must have, and this is a key area of focus for your deans, and it should give us a measure of comfort since this is unquestionably an innovative faculty given the growth of the campus.  A brief example: among Michigan publics, UM-Flint leads in the percentage of students enrolled exclusively in distance education courses (16 percent); and, we have 30 percent of our students enrolled in at least one distance education course—the closest public is at 19 percent.

And we have in our hands market research and curricular proposals that outline a number of wonderful opportunities for expanding and enhancing our academic programs.  We will undoubtedly continue to be lead by faculty in our newest School, the School of Nursing, which will soon be presented for Regental approval.  We are also working on new models for the liberal arts as well that can, in my estimation, answer the questions from the doubters in many quarters of society about the relevance of the liberal arts in today’s economy.

The great thing is that every School and College is at the innovation table.  Other wonderful examples include our work in Education, crucial for Flint’s future, and our core commitment to interdisciplinarity, which of course is linked strongly to our commitment to the future of the region.  We will create and enhance linkages between student success and faculty success in all programs.  In essence I envision a creative, sustainable, community-connected ecosystem of learning and student support to assure the long-term success of all our disciplinary programs and their interdisciplinary and inter-professional connections.

But we all know there’s a major part of our curriculum where the ecosystem is having trouble supporting vibrant learning:  General Education.  I’m thrilled to see significant engagement here, and I want to encourage the committees that are considering the FYE Course and General Education to challenge the very foundations of our curricular goals that define our mission.  We have a singular opportunity to reconsider our entire curriculum, not just our gen ed curriculum, but our entire curriculum to align with our history, mission, beliefs, desires, and aspirations.

A curriculum is a specification of the kind of learning outcomes we desire—and since we know learning can occur anywhere and anytime I want us to think about how our advising interactions enhance or impede learning.  I am forming an advising task force with the goal of seamless integration of instruction and advisement in all of our programs.  Curricular specifications and their outcomes—the quality of the blueprint and the beauty and longevity of the finished architecture—is how we will ultimately be judged by all our constituents, the harshest one being history.

Let’s be really bold again.  Let’s say that in the next 5 years the blueprint for the future of higher education at regional urban public institutions will be recognized as originating from UM-Flint.  I was at the CAS chairs retreat on Tuesday and heard every one of the ideas I spoke of previously, as well as the will for their successful implementation, in that room.  Again, it’s in the doing.

So now Governance.  I should probably stop here and wish every one a great year.  But we cannot.  I’ve been fortunate to have a wide range of exposure to faculty governance throughout my career.

I grew up at an institution that was literally founded by faculty, served in campus AAUP leadership, chaired faculty governance and grievance committees, and worked with AAUP national leadership on extremely challenging and institution-threatening financial issues.

And believe me I appreciate the tenuous positions of provosts and deans and chairs and the high wire act that academic administrators navigate through inherent suspicion, miscommunication, as well as legitimate errors of judgment, co-mmission, and perhaps most dangerous, errors of omission.

Fortunately, this is an area with a well-established framework of policy and practice: the AAUP's 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities.  This statement is jointly formulated with the American Council on Education and the Association of Governing Boards and specifies areas of primary responsibility for governing entities, administrations, and faculties.

So we will use this framework, and in concert with all of the faculty governance groups and the AAUP leadership we will undertake a review and national benchmarking of our governance structure, policies, and procedures.  What I want is a roadmap forward that will enable us to work as effectively as possible together in collaborative but decisive leadership purposefully devoted to a well-defined, broadly affirmed institutional vision and mission.

Let’s be extra bold here.  Let’s say we will create a new charter for governance on the Flint Campus—a constitutional convention if you will—that creates a document that reflects our history, mission, and aspirations in structure and in practice and that can be readily adapted for the challenges of the future.

Being bold is being UM-Flint, doing what we do at the highest proficiency and confidently engaging the future.  To connect and implement our ideas, and to reinforce them across all that we do.  And it’s important to feel that on a primal level, in the stories we tell, how we use our words, our space, and our manner to describe our students, our colleagues, and our community.

To wish for a better future is indeed wonderful.  To know how to work toward it together is the more difficult part.  We have everything we need right here, together, today.  So let’s proceed, together.

The faculty of the University of Michigan-Flint is 60 years old this academic year.  It has been, and always will be, the only group that truly holds the answer to the question, where will the next 60 years take our University?

Go Big, Go Fearlessly, Go With Pride, and Go Blue!