2017 Academic Convocation Address

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"A Culture of Highest Learning"
Provost Douglas Knerr

I want to begin by reading this quote from A. Bartlett Giamatti:

“Leadership must define institutional shape, that is, define its standards and purposes—define the coherent, sustainable, daring, shared effort of learning that will increase a given community’s freedom, intellectual excellence, and human dignity.”

In my view, in our 61st year, we have the best opportunity to define a coherent, sustainable, daring, shared effort of learning at UM-Flint since our founding.

The question for us is, are we prepared, and are we willing, to reach to freedom, excellence, and dignity as a purposeful community of learners and scholars?  The answer is yes, we already have.

Thanks to the commitment of our Chancellor to empower the strategic planning process, we will make significant progress.  Here are our strategic planning priorities:

•  A Distinctive Identity that Builds Campus Pride
•  Excellent Education and Scholarship Across the Institution
•  A Student-Centered Culture Focused on Retention and Success
•  Recruitment through High-Quality Programs and Campus Life
•  A Vital Partnership with an Engaged Community

I ask that we think carefully about our relationship with each priority.  What are the faculty’s responsibilities to move to excellence and impact around these priorities?  A particular question for me is, what underpins each priority? 

A fundamental thread, of course, is our students.  They are our primary units of concern, our key point of mission focus, and they represent UM-Flint’s primary agency of impact in society.

From our student’s inspirations and aspirations, we guide them through the intellectual, cultural, and social assets of our institution.  We, the faculty, are the primary conduits for the translation of our institutional mission to students via our daily efforts.

So what are the faculty’s primary mechanisms for influencing students and enhancing their agency in the world?  Who we are, what we believe, our inspirations and aspirations, and our efforts across our careers are major elements of course, but that’s a hard one to describe collectively.

There is, however, a reflector of us that is all encompassing, and I want to speak today through the one lens that I believe is fundamental to all of the priorities, and that is our curriculum.  It is a reflection of us.

So, how do we look?

Our curriculum maps directly to UM-Flint’s environment of learning, scholarship, and community; it maps directly to our success; and it maps directly to our students as the primary agency of UM-Flint’s mission into the world.

I am declaring this academic year the “Year of the Curriculum” at UM-Flint.

Our curriculum is a specification for our desired learning outcomes, and it encompasses the entire institution.  It is our primary instrument with which to unite academic development and student development in one seamless arc.  And it is a mechanism to anchor our common understanding of “freedom, excellence, and dignity” within our daily practices.

The Year of the Curriculum will focus attention, resources, and energy on the great efforts currently underway, and tie them directly to the totality of the student experience and to the opportunities that have been identified by our Strategic Planning priorities.

For me, this theme is an affirmation of the trend that emerged last year in many places:  in the work on general education, first year experience, interdisciplinary programs, engaged learning, international education, and adult and continuing education.  Your efforts beg for a container into which we will organize forward motion around a common, mission-centered aesthetic and belief structure undergirding the curriculum, and, importantly, the environment of the curriculum.

And we must move according to the values that are the foundation of our priorities so that our students can clearly see their paths to success and achievement though our efforts.

I am proposing—two items for your consideration to further these goals:

The Institute for Integrative Learning, and The Academy at UM-Flint.

The Institute can provide a coherent home for a number of disparate entities as well as demonstrate, through its components, common elements of our mission philosophy and practice of learning and engagement.

The Institute can concentrate effort across domains of curricular activity, and, foremost, center each activity into the core mission and values of the institution.  It is a collection of signature endeavors, a location to foster identity, and a mechanism to define common threads in each of the proposed components, presented here:

•  Thompson Center for Learning and Teaching
•  International Center
•  Center for Core and Multidisciplinary Curricula
•  Center for Economic & Community Transformation
•  UM-Flint Honors Program

The first element is our Thompson Center for Learning and Teaching.  One of the most significant concerns that I’ve heard is the expectation surrounding the scope of faculty work.

The pressures on time, on productivity, the pressures to excel at each stage of our career while balancing external realities such as young children or aging parents, or both at the same time.

I believe it is time to unambiguously assure that faculty will be valued—and of value—individually and collectively, from our first day on campus throughout our entire careers.

Through the Thompson Center we are going to undertake a serious assessment of what it means to be a successful faculty member at UM-Flint, and that includes all elements of the faculty experience: learning, teaching, and living.  Tracy Wacker has proposed three domains of the Center: 1) Pedagogical Support; 2) Faculty Development and Mentoring; and 3) Engaged Learning in Partnership with Community and Government Relations and Career Services.

As we continue to shape the Thompson Center, I ask you to keep Boyer’s models of Scholarship and of Community at forefront.

We recognize the need for a more inclusive view of what it means to be a scholar and creative agent—recognition that knowledge is acquired and disseminated through research, through synthesis, through practice, and through teaching.

We also recognize the need to reorient faculty service to encompass a definition of productivity and relevance to our student-inspired mission through our curriculum.  I’ve listened to many faculty who believe our service expectations are problematic, unproductive, and unsatisfying.  Service does not have to be this way—more on this in a bit.

The ideals, principles, philosophies, and mechanisms of the curriculum considered across this set of entities contained in the Institute, and potentially others, will, I believe, enhance our institutional identity.

I’m especially drawn to our first strategic planning priority: Distinctive Identity That Builds Campus Pride.  That one seems a result, or a summation, of concerted efforts described in the other priorities.  And that’s how I see the components of the Institute functioning as a whole.

The International Center has and will continue to provide a coherent view of UM-Flint as a global citizen.

A proposed Center for Core and Multidisciplinary Curricula can sustain and enhance our current innovations in general education, in adult learning, in entrepreneurship, in sustainability, and in defining new approaches—and new vitality—in the liberal arts.

Reframing the department of Outreach in light of the expansion of the Thompson Center’s role in engagement, is a proposed Center for Economic & Community Development, which can focus the collective power of our faculty and curriculum on the most pressing opportunities for the positive transformation of our city and region.

And placing the Honors Program here can accelerate our continuing efforts to define the signature student experience at UM-Flint—and then compel all of us to extrapolate an honors experience into the experience of every student on our campus.

My Second Proposal—is The Academy at UM-Flint

Our Strategic Planning Steering Committee identified many challenges, including changing models of educational delivery, pressures on external funding, demographic shifts in student populations, questions concerning the relevancy of the curriculum, and increasing external scrutiny.  The Strategic Plan is a collective recognition of these realities and a declaration of common intent to address these as opportunities to excel.

I see The Academy as fuel for these efforts.  It is an investment in human capital, in our collective faculty capital.  The Academy will be a catalyst for exploration, collaboration, testing of ideas, and risk taking.  We will capitalize on the talent, creativity, and the initiative of our faculty by identifying great ideas and making them sustainable with the intention that this work will result in lasting change in how we operate and how we serve and advance our mission.

The Academy can be many things and can take many forms, such as:

•  Faculty-Led Innovation Groups
•  An “Internal Sabbatical”
•  A Studio, an Atelier, for Curricular Design/Redesign
•  Affinity Groups of Expertise and Interest
•  Multiple Entry Points to Match Desired Effort
•  A Ladder of Personal and Professional Development

One way to frame what the Academy can facilitate and accomplish is to look at three main categories:

•  Acceleration of Promising Curricular Initiatives
•  Reframing of Curricula through Collaborative Action
•  Inspiration for New Ways of Learning Across our Internal and External Communities

Acceleration, Reframing, and Inspiration.  I see this as a useful lens to match our strategic goals with our strategic actions.

The Council of Deans will fund and administer the Academy through the Thompson Center.  Compensating time and crediting effort for the Academy will be officially documented and affirmed by the highest academic authority on the campus.  If we redefine service to make it meaningful to our scholarly and creative work, to our teaching, to our students, and to our personal and professional goals and aspirations, it must count meaningfully in our promotion and tenure system.

As an example, here’s how I might participate in the Academy based on my own professional background and interests:

For Acceleration:  I’d work on clusters of interdisciplinary, integrative, technologically mediated courses mapped to the adult and continuing education needs in Michigan.

For Reframing:  I’d work on creating credit for prior learning and proficiency-based standards in courses most frequently dropped, failed, or withdrawn by our students.  Then I would ask why we think so highly of courses that present such barriers to our students.

For Inspiration:  I’d work to assure that the young Flint child in who was on the cover of Time magazine at the height of the water crisis—his name is Sincere Smith—and every child affected by the water crisis—has every possible educational opportunity that we can muster.

Anyone else want to share his or her ideas, skills, or passions?  If you do, let me know.  The Council of Deans will be recruiting the first groups of Academy faculty this semester.  We will follow a similar application process as the provost’s research grants, which, of course, we are going to continue into this year, because that’s a great example of acceleration and scaling of our research and creative projects.

Aviva Dorfman said to me recently that in the domain of early childhood education, everything is curriculum.  What a wonderful observation for us all.  Aviva and I also discussed Maxine Greene, who was a Columbia University professor, philosopher, and social activist.

Prof. Green’s book The Dialectic of Freedom reminds us that the ultimate goal of education is to make meaning of our lives, and that is what I truly believe should underpin the Year of the Curriculum.

This lifts us to a special place, a place not above our students with our degrees and publications and awards, a place not defined or constrained by time, but defined by a shared lifelong pathway in a relationship of learning.  I believe that our students’ development in the classroom and in the world follow the same pattern of faculty development in the classroom and in the world across our careers.  Here at UM-Flint I think we understand this from the student perspective, but perhaps less so from the faculty perspective—thus my obsession to get us closer together, closer to our mission, and closer to the underlying power of our shared curriculum.

This reminds me of Aristotle’s praxis, the reflection and action by free and purposeful people upon the world to transform it…and of Giamatti’s imperative.

We are indeed free and purposeful people.  And we must reflect and act upon our common understanding of the power our teaching, and its expression through our curriculum.  With a love for our profession, with respect for each other, and in service to our mission through our students.

I believe that we are in the best place in higher education to do this work, in our 61st Year.

We will redefine what it means to be a scholar and a creative agent.

We will reshape what service means by tying it relentlessly to mission-advancing activities.

And we will teach like freedom itself rests on the outcomes of our efforts—because, my valued colleagues—in our world today—it does.

We are the faculty of UM-Flint.

Welcome to our Classroom!