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CSB/SJU Fall Workshop Provost's Opening Comments August 21, 2002 

Achieving academic excellence in the current Information Age is in many respects no different from doing so in other periods of human history and higher education.  It is a question of choosing a path of emphasis meeting societal need and student need while simultaneously advancing human knowledge, valuing and responsiveness to the human condition.  But choosing a specific path is far more difficult for institutions and faculties today.   This can be seen in part by the fact that a recent book on higher education strategic planning identified 16 different types of learning organizations in the higher education marketplace. Also, the enrollment size and political support for community colleges, public universities, and those liberal arts colleges that have abandoned their liberal arts emphasis to seek adult markets indicate the complexity and risks of our choice of direction. Yet no institution with limited endowment and specific geographic position can be all things to all people seeking a college education and degree. We must choose and we must choose wisely where we are heading over the coming decade. 

In making our choice some guidance from the past is warranted.  Edmund Burke identified a philosophy of conservativism that honored and conserved the past.  But it did not treasure it for its heritage or history but for its value in the present and the future.  Aristotle and Heraclitus, Greek philosophers, identified for us that there are constancy and pattern, as well as continuous change in nature and the human situation.  A modern book, entitled Who Moved My Cheese focuses on the importance of our embracing realistic and valuable change.  We must both own and embrace change if we are to continue to be strong liberal arts colleges in the Catholic and Benedictine intellectual tradition striving for a more recognizable and more prominent position on the national stage of liberal arts colleges and universities.

How can we get there from here?  What steps must we take?  How fast can we go? These are the questions we must answer as a community for ourselves and for our students.  Decisions need to be made and resources need to be allocated. 

First we must encourage the innovators, prophets and creative leaders among us.  They are to be found and supported in their ability to bring together liberal learning excellence, strong connectivity to the residential character of the campuses, and increased dialogue with the Benedictine and Catholic intellectual traditions.  Leadership will be necessary–faculty, professional staff, and administration.  We will be successful to the extent that we build the village together.  We will be successful to the extent that we choose the road less traveled as Robert Frost’s poem encouraged us to do.  We must act like young Olympic champions in training exhibiting traits of self-discipline, focus and persistence.  Doing the same thing that has worked in the past will be our temptation; such a temptation must be resisted. It is the least safe of all choices for excelling in the Information Age and Global Society. 

We need to recognize and affirm each other in the fact that we have already come a long way.  In the Chinese walk of 1,000 miles we are certainly more than 500 miles down the road.  We long ago embraced active learning teaching strategies.  We are nationally recognized for the strength of our classroom discussions as a method of student learning and engagement.  Our study abroad program is large, valued by our students and the envy of many of our competitors. More so than many other institutions we have been faithful in our curricular emphases on liberal learning.  We have begun to evolve certain significant patterns of academic synergistic energy in environmental studies, Asian studies, gender studies and the fine arts among other areas.  We tenure strong teachers and we collaborate more than most institutions with our colleagues in Student Development area.  These are all important parts of achieving academic excellence and enhanced student learning in our current age.  However, we must do more.  We must be even more consistent in all these areas in creating student learning advantage to achieve the excellence we seek.  Walking the talk must be self-evident to all of our students, all colleagues and all evaluators. 

What are some of the missing pieces to make the whole?  Important indicators and clues come to us from student volunteerism, governmental criticisms of higher education, and higher education competition in liberal arts education.  Three patterns of behavior and focused energy must be brought into harmony – the student pattern, the faculty/department pattern, and the institutional/ competitor pattern.   

With regard to students we must accelerate our commitment and practice of all forms of “integrated learning”.  We must find more ways to bring the global into our local educational environment.  We need to return in Burke terms to a better balance between core, major and electives in credit hours encouraging student choice, student responsibility and student ownership of their learning.  And finally we should work hard at the creation of double majors in compressed formats to encourage our professional degree program students to double major in a liberal arts discipline in a reduced credit format.   

In the faculty/department pattern we need to continue our discussions to conclusion regarding synergistic programs and energies across academic departments.  We will want to think about how we can increase interdisciplinary perspectives in our teaching of the disciplines. The public policy initiative, environmental studies, and Asian studies are three important strategies and efforts in building institutional liberal arts excellence in the Information Age.  A number of departments will want to discover strategies for more recognition and others will want to build slowly toward the rewarding path of traditional academic distinction. Certainly, one path of importance will be for faculty as a whole to excel in all forms of scholarship in the Boyer model from discovery to application. 

At the institutional/ competitor pattern level trends toward internationalization of curriculum and learning are developing strongly in liberal arts colleges.  We must exceed those trends.  Study abroad is one important part of that pattern.  Undergraduate research is expanding and becoming more a symbol of liberal arts excellence. We must find affordable ways to expand research in our majors and also during summers. Partnering and alliance building will also be critical in liberal arts excellence.  We are making new alliances with Bunkyo in Japan.  We are exploring relationships with the Diocese and Homa Bay in Kenya. Honors education must become a point of institutional distinctiveness and intellectual excitement symbolizing some of the best practices in student learning engagement on campuses. We will want and need to continue to expand service learning and internship sites.  These are all necessary strategies toward liberal arts excellence and integrative learning.  Finally, the Catholic and Benedictine intellectual traditions need to be made more available in the learning experiences of all our graduates.  Those traditions and the practice of Benedictines for over 100 years locally on our campuses is a past that must be preserved and integrated into our future

Excellence in supporting and assisting liberal learning in the Information Age will be achieved only by the collaborative efforts of all of us.  We have to bring our passions, energies and organized focus behind the types of initiatives defined in the three patterns expected of institutions pursuing liberal arts excellence in the Information Age.  We will become distinctive and a national model of liberal arts education by pursuing the effective promotion and integration of the three patterns that I have identified this morning.  

We all know that change is inevitable and accelerating in higher education.  Liberal learning will not be achieved by emphasizing disciplinary boundaries or valuing the past as history.  It will be supported most strongly through more frequent and intense interdisciplinary teaching, enhanced opportunities for undergraduate research, strengthened programs in global learning, and increased attention to developing responsibility based learning in our students among other strategies defined today. Liberal arts institutions live in a world of very high risk (less than 5%) and a world of very high need (violence and international trade). We must turn threats into opportunities.  We must create and own our changes.  Collaboration and partner seeking must be seen as powerful strategies for moving on to the next level.  

Let me summarize the elements of excellence we need to systematically pursue within our resource and time constraints: 

  • Advance all forms of “integrated learning” for and with our students
  • Create the global in the local and provide increased international experiences for our students and ourselves
  • Promote undergraduate research both in the major and at the institutional support level
  • Expand learning alliances and partnerships with Student Development and with various communities and organizations.
  • Implement a cluster of academic programs and faculty synergies approach to academic excellence
  • Maintain a strong liberal arts core and expand liberal learning opportunities more consistently across all majors and all courses.
  • Build selectively distinguished academic programs and public recognition programs to increase visibility and market attractiveness.
  • Expand international study abroad learning
  • Bring the Catholic and Benedictine intellectual traditions into departmental courses and colleague conversations in a more systematic way
  • By carrying out the academic direction identified this morning both individually and collaboratively we will all create a powerful, sustainable momentum for “maximizing student advantage” and “creating substantial value added learning” for all our graduates.  Let us all remember that organizations, and higher education institutions are no exception, do not succeed by doing the same things better or faster.  They succeed over time by doing high impact things well and often, focusing their time, energy and communications.

The future in higher education will be a scary place to live for those who don’t shape it by assertive and collaborative action.

Henry Smorynski, Ph.D.