Academic Vice President’s State of the University Address

David  M. La Guardia

Interim Academic Vice President

February 14, 2002

 

Thank-you, Ernie.

 

            I walked over to this meeting in the company of the Mathematics department, which seemed like three hundred strong!  So, I feel particularly safe today. Even so, I trust in your responses that you will remember that it is Valentine’s Day.

 

            Before I begin the formal remarks, I want to extend a general thank you to all who have helped me through this year, from the administration, the faculty and the staff.  Someone forgot to tell me about September 11th!  In the days following that tragedy, all of us were trying to discover the best way to respond to an unparalleled situation.  Mostly, we did a fine job, although some students were upset with us about our decisions and some were upset with some of you, the faculty, for not taking advantage of the “teachable moments” in the days immediately after the attacks.  Yet it’s not as if any of could practice for such a thing. We were all trying to know how to respond, as private selves and as public selves, in our classrooms and in other contexts.  Thank-you again for your support during a difficult time.

 

            Now, for the formal remarks.  

 

            I know that some of you are unlucky enough to be included on John Spencer’s list of folks to whom he occasionally sends some of the most outrageous puns in the history of language.  I have joked with John that since he can most likely hear my groaning responses to these tidbits reverberating across the campus, there surely is no need for me to otherwise acknowledge them for the linguistic disasters that they are.  (Especially since, if I do acknowledge them, more are mailed almost instantly--puns apparently propagate to the sound of groans. This is a crime that must be stamped out!)  Since shared misery is better than suffering alone, I would like to begin my remarks by sharing with you now Dr. Spencer’s most recent “pun-crime.”  Here goes:  “Mahatma Gandhi, as you know, walked barefoot most of the time, which produced an impressive set of calluses on his feet.  He also ate very little, which made him rather frail and, with his odd diet, he suffered from bad breath.  This made him. . .”  [And then Dr. Spencer, or his source, attempts to evoke suspense for the oncoming dark deed: ‘Oh, man,’ he says, ‘this is so bad, it’s good’]  “. . .This made him. . .a super callused fragile mystic hexed by halitosis.”

            Despite our joking about them, there are lessons to be found in the art (if we may call it that) of punning, which relate to our discussion today, and perhaps to any discussion.  First is the lesson of inclusion:  we are included in the joke if we have access to the allusion at its heart.  (Except for the cleverness of the wording, you would not have laughed just now had you no knowledge of that famous long word from the musical Mary Poppins.)  And then there is a lesson involving pleasure and pain.  With some intellectual pain (puns are intellectually painful by definition), there comes a simultaneous pleasure that it is important to notice and that is worth sharing with others.  (In the case of puns, the pleasure and the pain issue from the simultaneous insight that, first, you get the joke, and, second, it’s not worth getting!)  Finally, and most importantly to the few points I hope to make now, is that punning involves a lesson in perspective:  how you respond or where you stand in relation to even a well-delivered pun depends almost entirely upon the perspective you bring to hearing it—your mood, your circumstance, your tolerance for levity, your willingness to succumb to creative silliness.  Framing your perspective in response to John’s pun, most of you groaned appropriately and laughed appropriately.  (And most of you never dreamed that I would belabor the point to the extent I already have.)

            Now, for the transition.  At Ernie’s invitation, I stand before you this afternoon in my capacity as Interim Academic Vice President to offer what has become an annual analysis of the state of the University—a daunting enough task.  Fred Travis has established a rich tradition of excellent addresses to the Faculty Forum.  I will not try to imitate them.  In my “interim” capacity, my perspective is somewhat different from what his was able to be. While that is a given, I need you to know that I am aware of the adjective, “interim,” as I proceed with these comments. And I know you are aware of it also.  Titles are but odd-shaped hats we all wear somewhat awkwardly.  If they describe, they do not define.  If you need a definition for me, whatever the titles may be, please place on my tombstone:  “member of the English faculty, John Carroll University.” 

            Still, I am happy to share with you an “interim,” mostly informal perspective on the university.  This will be short.  I have decided to avoid lists of statistics and specific agendas and accomplishments, not that they are not relevant.  Rather, this will be a fireside chat approach to who and where we are at this point in time. 

I want first to establish a long view.  My vision backward approaches biblical proportion.  I have lived more of what for most of you is John Carroll’s history than I care to admit.  I came to the university as an Instructor in 1968.  I came as a student in 1961.  Think of what that implies about my perspective on this place.  I have a shopping bag filled with green grade books—those odd professorial memory banks storing thousands of students’ names, grades, days of missed class, from as many as thirty years ago. Perhaps I can make this point even more dramatically:  I was here when Bob Kolesar of Mathematics weighed only 145 pounds!  [Visuals do help, don’t they?]

In 1976, when I had been here as a professor only eight years, the editor of the Carillon yearbook invited me to write a “reminiscence” of what John Carroll was like in the 1961-1965 sequence of my undergraduate years.  Since your perspective might be that we do not progress quickly enough, if at all, around here, listen for a few moments, from the vantage point of 2002, to a passage from my reminiscence in 1976, about the all-male campus life as it was in 1961 (I hope you followed that).  [I will not apologize for the young and melodramatic tone of this passage.  I was young and melodramatic.]

There were no grave campus differences in 1961, not architecturally at least. 

Where the science building sprouts its rectangular obesity, a majestic arrow of poplars aimed toward Manners [now Pizzaz!]—an eatery which, even in its prime, made SAGA food taste delicious.  Since Murphy Hall did not exist either, coeds on campus were voluptuous rarities.  What girls there were were remnants of evening school classes, dangerous intrusions to our celibate, chauvinist minds, Eve’s in Carroll’s Eden!  We were “Carroll Men,” ringed to girls back home, nurtured for academia, suit-coated and tied to cafeteria dinners, required weekday Masses once a month, confession-in-chapel twenty-four hours a day.  In Dolan and Pacelli halls, a gendarme-Jesuit made the rounds each midnight for a “lights-out check.”  To avoid capture, desperate freshmen and sophomores devised heavy-blanket camouflages for windows, or worse, crammed for exams under bed covers with high intensity lamps for companions.  Seniors in Bernet, by the privilege of age, studied unmolested ‘til dawn.  We were pre-Vatican II, pre-assassinations, pre-Vietnam fever and Kent State slaughter.  John Kennedy’s shock of hair and Camelot virility were tempting us out of “crew-cuts,” “princetons,” even left over “ducktails.”  The Beatles were not yet deified, and “beatnik,” hybrid of Sputnik in the lingo of space freaks, was the nation’s bad word.

In short we were in between.  The members of the class of ’65 were infants during World War II.  We were too young for Korea, too old for the mass draft to Vietnam, too ambivalent in our self-identities to worry much about either.  Probably instinctively, certainly unconsciously, our guardians had sheltered us from their bleak realities—Depression bread lines, the war hysteria.  And the good Jesuits proffered their paternal arms in our parent’s stead.  In loco parentis!  Carroll was a cocoon, and we were delighted in our dormancy. Hardly tragic beings, we studied Shakespeare more with gusto than with guts; Philosophy, as remote as the yet-virgin moon, carried an eighteen hour core requirement.  Each Friday, armed with muskets, in military attire, we hutted across the football field bleating ribald cadence songs—playing soldier before lunch.

Sure, and we drank and cussed and sinned, and were human in our oddly protected way.  Lurid caravans, we drove or hitched or walked to Notre Dame College, Ursuline, and ever-luscious [although I still don’t know why] Lake Erie College, starved more for company than for prey.  Beer-less sock-hops with piped-in music were jammed.  The age was pre-mini-skirt revolution, when sexuality was not necessarily sacred, but secret, and “streaking” was a phenomenon of stars.  The daring among us dropped in the night from dormitory windows, or sped about the quadrangle in old Edsel’s, as if we had found something new. . .

But there is nothing new.  John F. Kennedy’s brains splattered our innocence in 1963, and his horse-drawn caisson dragged the hearse of our youth to the grave.  We learned disillusion, lowered our optimism to half-mast.  If we managed to smile into graduation, it was an uneasy, suspicious grin on our commencement faces.  America began to become what it was to become.  Ruddied butterflies, we fled the cocoon.

            Do you recognize any of this vision?  Looking backward forty years and comparing it to now foretells how much John Carroll will change over the next forty years. It is sobering for me to realize that I have lived through the construction of TWO science buildings.  I don’t remember being excited about the first one! And can there be a greater lesson of how much we have learned from our mistakes than the new building now rising on the campus front doorstep?  Nostalgia though, as it glows in this passage, sometimes has a darker side.  When we evacuated our campus last fall I was taken back to the memory of a gymnasium concert in 1964, a packed house listening to a group called “Brazil 66,” and seeing Fr. Frank Smith maneuvering from the back of the stage, through bongos, guitars and sequined shirts, to announce five minutes into the show that there had been a bomb scare, that we must evacuate the building immediately. And we did.  And that group made a lot of money for a five-minute performance. And another memory. On September 11, as I attempted like the rest of you to separate strong emotions from the need to make some difficult decisions, I recalled this same confused campus on November 22nd, 1963, when over 300 staff, faculty and students gathered and knelt at the foot of the flag pole in spontaneous prayer for a world gone crazy.  I thought a spontaneous moment like that one could never happen again, but I was wrong.

            If Tennyson was correct in saying that we rise on the stepping-stones of our own dead selves to higher things, then I am here to tell you that, with many dead selves beneath me, I have watched this university become a better place.  Let me list the obvious. We have an excellent and national faculty, sophisticated in its diverse approach to complex and ever changing disciplines.  We have a wonderful support staff, lifelines to our success and survival.  We offer a dynamic education based in the liberal arts, founded on a unique mission dedicated to serving others, committed to diversity and equality, rich in its tolerance, creative in its skepticism. The opportunities that are here to experience outside of the classroom on any given week-night a vibrant intellectual dialogue on a vast array of topics have reached such an amazing pitch that it is difficult to fit them on calendars, to locate rooms for them, much less to take advantage of attending even a small portion of them.  This richness and variety reflect this faculty and various administrators, for you design them, you arrange them, you make them happen.  They did not much happen in 1961.

No Pollyanna here.  Improvement over years has not evolved without pain, without scars. The sad fact is that many who were alienated by this or that change remain alienated to this day, if they are still among us. We take our stands, don’t we, and nourish them to a fault?  Success is never quite pure on an academic campus.  Case in point.  Despite controversies in implementing the core that still simmer now and again, I would argue that our core curriculum is more sound, more relevant, more gender aware, more international, more writing specific, more student and teacher centered than it was six years ago. Many people in this room on both sides of the various and hot discussions deserve credit for allowing a strong if controversial curriculum to be implemented.   

Another case-in-point about which controversy still simmers many years later.  I would argue that John Carroll continues to grow from that pivotal point in time in the mid-80’s when Fr. Tom O’Malley, wanting the University to develop a larger and less sheltered version of itself, decided that research and the publication that flows from it deserve greater emphasis than it had had in the sixties and seventies, and so he implemented changes in order to bring about a greater balance between research and teaching.  The greater emphasis on research produced, at least from my vantage point, an even greater emphasis on teaching.  Would the increasingly more vital Center for Teaching and Learning exist without the O’Malley changes?   Would the sharp increase in Grauel Fellowships from three or four per year to 17 or 18 per year have occurred without the O’Malley changes?  Arguable, but I do not think so.   

What I am going to say now may lean a little more toward “Pollyanna,” but I am going to say it anyway.  (You won’t stone the provider of the shrimp, will you?)  John Carroll is a wonderful and friendly place to work and be.  Yet for years some have talked about issues of morale on the campus.  When the topic comes up, what follows is often a familiar quick-list of reasons why such issues exist.  As is the case with puns, there is both pleasure and pain in scratching old scars.  But where is the healing?  Sometimes, amidst the bickering that we often have trouble containing, we miss the essential interdependence that defines who we are individually and institutionally.  A sense of community is a valuable gift, worth nurturing to the extent that we have it, worth re-discovering to the extent that we have lost any part of it. 

Internally, I think we need to build more bridges, between traditional “rivals” on the campus, among departments, among divisions, most importantly, between and among all the various constituents that define this whole place.  I am delighted that Fr. Howard Gray is here to help us know ourselves better in this area.  We need to close the separation that exists, to the extent that it does and to the extent that it is possible, between faculty and administration, or staff and administration, between academic life and student life--the list is longer than this.  If we are guilty of it, we need to move away from the tendency toward the same old attacks, using the same old language, against the same old topics and people.  We need to recognize that difficult issues will always exist.  Dissonance is not a bad thing.  Some issues will make us angry, because decisions that please some frustrate others.  We need each of us to examine the extent to which we allow the issue, whatever it is, to overtake the life. 

Let me end on a point of information.  This morning I learned that rumors were surfacing about a person who has been hired by the university as a consultant.  His name is Dr. Thomas Scheye, currently a Professor of English at Loyola, Baltimore, where he spent twenty years, from 1979 to 1999, as Loyola’s Academic Vice President.  Here is how Dr. Scheye came to be working with us.  Several months ago, Fr. Glynn attended a Board of Trustees Meeting at Marquette and heard a presentation by Dr. Scheye who had been hired by Marquette to help them with their marketing plan.  His talk was so impressive that three Jesuit presidents approached him afterwards to ask if he might deliver a similar address at their institution.  Fr. Glynn invited him to address the Development Committee of the Board of Trustees, and he invited some administrators to listen in.  The success of that talk prompted a second address to the Executive Committee of the Board and a larger audience of invitees, including the vice presidents and academic deans, the Registrar, the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid, and others. After this talk, Fr. Glynn invited Tom Scheye to consult with the university in the areas of marketing, enrollment, and strategic planning.  He was here last Thursday and Friday to meet with several people and will return again on March 12 to make a presentation to the full Board of Trustees and again on Thursday and Friday of that same week to meet with the University Planning Committee and the Committee on Undergraduate Enrollment.  We are sending to Dr. Scheye materials that will help him better to help us, including enrollment strategies and statistics, the goals and strategic plan of the University and various other materials.  Dr. Scheye is also working with Xavier University and, in the past, he has served as part of the Maryland Province Commission on Ministries. 

I hope this helps to dispel confusion about his presence.  I heard the rumor that Dr. Scheye was hired to replace Dr. Wertheim as Director of Planning and Assessment, that he was going to trash our strategic plan and cause us to begin all over again.  Neither is true, but such is the life of rumors.  I hope when you hear them, whatever they are, that you will try to locate their truth rather than to fan them.  Can we communicate better?  Of course we can.  But good communication, excellent goal that it is, remains an imprecise science.  We can all try to improve it daily, and still fall behind.  But we must continue to try.  And we will.

Thanks all of you for your patient listening.