AVP Address to Faculty Forum:  February 13, 2003

David La Guardia



Good afternoon, everyone.


            First I wish to thank Ernie and the Executive Committee of the Faculty Forum for inviting me to deliver this annual address. 

In my talk delivered a year ago almost to the day, we were looking backward, still digesting the events of September 11th and their impact on our students and the university community.  Today we look forward with held breath and the prayer that we will not again enter into yet another chaotic tunnel.  The media is doing its best to raise our anxiety to the highest possible levels.  If we were caught by surprise on September 11th, we will not be permitted to be surprised now.  Which makes it no easier, except to be able to know in advance this time that our students and their parents and, yes, our colleagues and friends and even ourselves, may need to reach out in ways different from what we think of as normal.  John Roper reported at a recent meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Impending War in Iraq that student visits to the Counseling Center have risen forty percent in the last several weeks.  Duct tape does not work on the emotions.  We talked a lot last year about “teachable moments.” We need to know that we may have plenty of them coming our way.  I am grateful for the various initiatives that people across the university community have already taken to increase knowledge, to provide counsel or support, to foster discussion and perspective, to not sit still.  

Now, for a lighter moment. As you all know, the electronic airwaves are filled with endlessly reprocessed, mostly corny jokes and stories that float through the atmosphere like tiny dust particles; they end up polluting your morning e-mail and need to be flicked quickly away lest they clog up your mind or your machine or both.  A few days ago, one of these corny stories was forwarded from a friend of mine, a Franciscan friar who now lives in St. Louis and who, years ago, was a graduate student here. For reasons that you will understand in a minute, I thought you might enjoy hearing it, since even the corny can be entertaining.  It seems that a man in a hot air balloon realized that he was lost.  He reduced altitude and spotted a woman below.  He descended a bit more and shouted:  “Excuse me, can you help me?  I promised a friend I would meet him an hour ago, but I don’t know where I am.”   The woman replied:  “You’re in a hot air balloon hovering approximately 30 feet above the ground.  You’re between 40 and 41 degrees north latitude and between 59 and 60 degrees west longitude.”  “You must be a college teacher,” said the balloonist.  “I am,” replied the woman.  “How did you know?”  “Well,” answered the balloonist, “everything you told me is technically correct, but I’ve no idea what to make of your information, and the fact is I’m still lost.  Frankly, you’ve not been much help at all.  If anything, you’ve delayed my trip.”  The woman below responded, “You must be a college administrator.”  “I am,” replied the balloonist, “but how did you know?”  “Well,” said the woman, “you don’t know where you are or where you’re going.  You have risen to where you are due to a large quantity of hot air.  You made a promise, which you’ve no idea how to keep, and you expect people beneath you to solve your problems.  The fact is you are in exactly the same position you were in before we met, but now, somehow, it’s my fault.” 

(Why did I sense you might enjoy that a little too much?)  We have to imagine that the jokes, stories and colorful comments that take administrators to task are as old as the snake in Eden. And such comments can be particularly brutal. The American poet Theodore Roethke who, amid bouts of insanity, taught creative writing at the end of his career at the University of Washington in Seattle, once wrote in his notebook:  “He was a man with little capacity for any kind of thinking: therefore he was made an administrator.”  On another page in the notebook Roethke remarked:  “I miss the administrator who will hammer the table and say, ‘Everything’s been organized: we want to disorganize it.  We want intense people who can teach’.”  “Teaching,” he added, “goes on in spite of the administrators.”  (This is a man who once said about his students:  “I want you to rise above Spokane!”  And Roethke was not particularly easy on teachers either:  “The teaching profession:  too many clever [people] without any gifts other than a low cunning; too many cardinal’s secretaries.”  Not sure what you want to do with that remark.)

Whether as administrators or as teachers, we should all prefer to squirm free of such stereotypes once we know for sure that that is what they are. Delicious as they may be when we carelessly embrace them, the parts of stereotypes that are true are simply not equal to the parts of them that simplify and cause pain or harm.  The administrator in the balloon and the teacher on the ground are doomed to be forever separated, which means that the administrator will never share with the teacher his lofty perspective, and the teacher’s informed focus will never help the administrator out of his predicament.  In their confident convictions they will float gracefully away from one another, mostly intolerant of what they perceive as each other’s misguided positions.  Their separate worlds may not improve very much. If they continue to know one another at all, one imagines that the separation could last for decades.

This allegory is not very subtle.  I will be the first to admit that even beyond September 11th it has been a difficult year for many of us on this campus.  Some of our issues are as recent as my own appointment to this position and some, fed by the pained memories of those who have been here a long time, are the residue of years of frustration.  The generic groups of us have been cast against one another for a while, and we have become “the staff” and “the faculty” and “the administration.”  We each do our jobs very well.  We have thrived collectively in an excellent institution.  But whether in balloons or on the ground, we sometimes have forgotten our common bond. 

While I do not wish to minimize the reasons for our tensions, I want to establish a simple theme for this address, which is this:  it is time for us to become again a university community.  We need to open the doors and air out the house. Because it is a good, solid house.  We need to rise above differences, recognize our distinct roles in a common mission, and cooperate to bring this university through what I estimate will be challenging yet fruitful times ahead.  This is not at all to say we should exist without creative dissonance:  the plurality of our perspectives is at the heart of what a fine university must be and of what has brought us to where we are.  It is the tension in the tightrope that makes the act of balancing so beautiful, and we should continue to foster an interaction on our campus that is defined by energy and dynamism and conviction, the kind of delicate balancing and cooperation that challenges the status quo, yet tolerates fallibility.  If one group has lost trust in the other, then we must work to locate it again.  I just want to say very simply that I am committed to that task and of working with you and the deans and the vice presidents and the President to help bring it about.  We are not a perfect body, but we are not as imperfect as we sometimes have let ourselves say and think.  Let us keep the pressure on, but let us know at the same time who we are and how good we are.

What are some of the challenges we face as an institution?  Of course, they are many and diverse and often enough quite sobering.  Let me provide an elaborate example.  Some of you may be familiar with the “Project on the Future of Higher Education,” an on-going national study housed at Antioch University.  Lauren Bowen, Pam Mason, Patrick Rombalski and I traveled recently to the AACU conference in Seattle, and one of the conference sessions I attended summarized the findings of this comprehensive project.  The presenters organized their presentation around this question:  “how do we increase student learning and maintain the quality of faculty work-life with fewer resources?”  Among the sobering economic realities they listed as evidence of the current state of things were these:  state governments are facing the worst fiscal conditions since World War II; 48 states face budget deficits ranging from 2 to 20% with no chance this time of the federal government bailing them out; for the first time in 30 years, most college endowments are losing money; private giving to colleges and universities is steady or declining in most areas; fiscal challenges appear to be structural and long-term, rather than superficial and short-term;  if higher education costs and revenues grow at the rate they have in the past twenty years, higher education would face a 25% shortfall of $38 billion dollars by 2015.

Of course, the way these facts apply to private universities is different than the way they apply to public institutions.  But we are not at all immune from them, and our planning from the departmental to the institutional level must keep them in mind.  The presenters from the Project suggest, again rather soberly, that the two major options the majority of universities without huge endowments may face is either to try to “muddle through” this fiscal environment in the hope that it will go away or to energize a seminal transformation.  Muddling through, they argue, will eventually require increasing faculty and staff workloads, intensifying fund raising, refinancing debt, hiring inexpensive faculty, enacting selective cuts and layoffs based on priorities.  They suggest that not changing will eventually undermine the quality of faculty work-life and student learning, that present curricula will have difficulty surviving with quality, that increasing student enrollment will not solve basic problems, and, of course, that tuition increases will not offset funding shortfalls.  And so they propose that institutions may need to transform not only their organizational systems but their learning systems as well.  Among what they call “10 organizing principles” for “creating a vital campus in a climate of restricted resources” are these: audit and restructure budget allocations; audit and restructure administrative and student services systems; audit and restructure the curriculum; create a culture of assessment; restructure instructional work and integrate all relevant professionals into the educational process; restructure educational delivery system:  courses, credit hours, academic calendar.  And the list goes on.  I must tell you it gave me a headache.  

            After absorbing all of this, one frustrated vice-president rose and said:  so you are telling us, and we must tell our faculties, that in essence we have been wasting money all along and that we must transform ourselves along the lines of a model already perfected by the University of Phoenix?  The presenters would not be put off by his cynicism.  They were arguing out of what they contend are the basic facts and real concerns.

            The reason I have spent so much time developing the findings of this Project is not to depress or frustrate, but to raise consciousness about these issues, and to make the point again that as a faculty, staff and administration, we share an endeavor here that defines our future, requires our strict attention, will not abide carelessness, and presumes a focused vision and mission.  We simply cannot afford the luxury of breaking into disparate groups, or of losing our concept of excellence.

I was told recently that a growing concern among some faculty is that the university is shifting to a “corporate identity,” that “the Business Office is running the school,” that academics mean less now than ever before.  First, although I understand the sources of these concerns, I do not agree with their substance.  Academics must define us and remain at the heart of what we do; we are not a business that serves customers, reaps profits, or attends always and ever to a bottom line.  I have to think that the internal environment that spurs such perceptions is somewhat similar to the economic environment that spurred the Project on the Future of Higher Education.  Like it or not, we do have budgets.  Financial resources are part of the reality of who we are and how we can operate.  The constricting pressure of dwindling resources, whether internally or externally, will certainly bring a Business Office into greater prominence. 

But that must have nothing to do with “running the place.”  If I have learned anything in the brief time I have held this position, especially in this present economy, it is that budgets are based on finite pockets.  I am delighted if you will blame Jon Ivec for all that we cannot afford.  I have blamed him many times myself.  But to be fair it is just not that simple.  I see as an essential part of what I do to listen to the deans and the faculty and directors in their requests for resources for programs, personnel and benefits, to try to distinguish among excellent proposals, and then to insist on what seem the essential, and often visionary, academic needs.  That inevitably means saying no to a lot of excellent ideas. I recognize that Patrick Rombalski in his budgets may be insisting on his own particular needs.  We are competing not necessarily for the same dollars but for the same understanding of holistic excellence:  the needs of “student life” are delicately and inevitably interwoven into academic considerations.  Good communication will make that clear. 

If our communication is strong, and that must ever remain the elusive goal, hard decisions become easier and taking risks become part of the compromise.  In my opinion, we are getting there.  As one for instance, issuing from our mission our support of initiatives for international studies has been fairly significant and, through Dr. Mason’s hard work, several programs are flourishing so well that a risk factor has recently reared its head: Pat Rombalski reports that we have more empty dormitory beds this semester than we have had in years due mainly to the fact that so many students are spending the semester abroad.  A corporate business office attending to the bottom line might say in a jiffy to close down or at least leash such an enterprise.  We are not doing that.  The academic benefit supersedes the risk, and so now we must plan strategically to handle the immediate shortfall and to correct for it in the future.  And, for this and every other enterprise, we must communicate with each other at every level to know which are the benefits and accompanying risks in ventures like this that we find most worthy to pursue. 

In much of what I have said so far, the issue of strategic planning for the future of John Carroll plays a vital part.  Since there has been some confusion on the new role of the University Planning Group (or UPG), I thought this would be a good occasion to review what is happening there.  You will recall that the UPG has been recently reconstituted by doubling the number of faculty members who serve on it from three to six.  The vice presidents and deans also serve on the committee, as do two students, a staff representative, the Director of Planning and Assessment, the Associate Academic Vice President, the Academic Vice President for Enrollment Services, the Director of Institutional Planning, the Assistant to the President for Mission and Identity, and the Academic Vice President as chair.  In its earlier format, the deliberations of the committee were not necessarily forwarded directly to the president, a procedure that allowed the vice presidents an opportunity to edit or re-prioritize their recommendations to the president.  With the new format, recommendations from the whole committee go directly to the president and, once approved, go from him to the Board of Directors.  

The essence of what this shift implies is that the president and the Board of Directors enhanced the significance of the planning voice as it emanates from the entire university community.  The continuing goal is to establish better and more candid conversation among all parties at the table as strategic issues flow from the strategic plans of all departments, divisions and offices of the university.  The goal is also to foster greater consistency and cogency for all that leaves the committee.

As Sally Wertheim is careful to remind us, planning is a process.  With Sally’s help, all sections of the university have participated in this process.  They have performed a SWOT analysis, have identified their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, have established their particular mission and goals, and have set about not only defining their strategic plan but also the ways in which they will implement it.  This process has been moving forward for many, many months and several aspects of several individual plans have already been implemented. 

In the meantime, in consultation with the faculty, staff and administration, the UPG created an abbreviated mission statement (which you find framed and hanging in various offices throughout the university), a vision statement, and six strategic institutional goals, all of which were eventually submitted to the Board of Directors and approved by them. Sally has collected from all of the plans submitted to her a long list of capital and endowment projects most of which fall naturally under one or the other of the six goals.

            What is most important for you to notice in all of this detail is the extent to which the strategic plan that continues to develop issues from an institution-wide process.  The task before the UPG presently is to fashion a Strategic Plan for Endowment and Capital Projects and to submit that plan to Fr. Glynn in time for it to be presented by the Academic Vice President to a special retreat of the Board of Directors this coming May.  Dr. Tom Scheye, who as you know is consulting with the university on issues of marketing, planning and admissions, will lead the discussion. 

The strategies in this complicated procedure are quite clear.  You have all participated in a process that contributes to a vision for the future of John Carroll University.  The president and the Board of Directors, to the extent that they are engaged and convinced by that vision, and the strategy that incorporates it, will make policy decisions and commit capital campaign resources so that the vision can be realized.  Mission, vision, strategy and goals should align in the plan that the UPG finally presents to the board. 

            There is so much more to say on this, and we are running out of time.  Let me just add this.  Our vision, mission and goals involve fundamental assumptions about who we are, how good we want to be, how big we want to be, what the caliber of our students should be, how diverse we want to be, why we want to be recognized as among the best Catholic Universities.  If we make, for instance, the strategic decision to remain at our present size, that decision has significant implications to the plan.  If we decide to raise the SAT scores of our students by 50 points, or to double the number of students of color, these have implications to the plan.  We are asking ourselves the question:  what does it mean to be a Master’s I Jesuit university in the year 2003?  

            I want to remind you that much of the information relating to all I have said is available to you on the web (http://www.jcu.edu/vision) in the form of summaries, lists, UPG minutes, names of committee members, reports, etc.  As the plan matures, that will be placed there too, so that the continuing dialogue, present from the grass-roots beginnings of the conversations, can continue to be energized by the fullest possible participation.                    

And now, may I switch to another important subject? Strategic planning is different from, yet intricately related to, assessment.  Approximately three years before the 1994 North Central visit, the university instituted an assessment committee to consider the implications to the university of the new assessment standards that had been incorporated into the North Central Accrediting Review.  The committee was chaired by Lou Pecek, the Assistant AVP.  Lou was also the primary writer of the 1994 report.  I was a member of that committee, and I recall both the challenges and ambiguities of our task.  Certainly at that time, John Carroll’s culture was not steeped in formal assessment.  The committee met eventually with the team of reviewers, explained our approach and tactics, and we passed muster without significant issue.  Since that time, like it or not, we have watched the assessment industry mature and grow.  When I replaced Lou Pecek in 1996, I carried forward his role as chair of the University Assessment Committee.  After considerable discussion within the committee and after conferring with Fred Travis as Provost, the committee charted a course that was aimed at being responsible to the North Central standards that we meticulously studied, while remaining short of establishing, as a few other universities had, an internal assessment bureaucracy with Director, office, staff, newsletter, etc.  When Dr. Wertheim became the Director of Planning and Assessment, the job of chairing the committee fell to her.  And, more recently, working closely with Sally, Dr. Elizabeth Swenson has chaired the committee as a logical and strategic bridge to her work as chair of the Steering Committee for the 2004 review by the Higher Learning Commission. 

The point is, for at least seven years, from 1996 until today, the University Assessment Committee has worked hard with departments, with concentrations, with the core committee and others, to establish a system for assessment that would combine an interest in internal program improvement with satisfying the requirements of the Commission. 

As I am sure by now you all know, a recent visit from our liaison to the Higher Learning Commission has created a hornet’s nest around the issue of assessment.  This is not the place to discuss the pleasantries of that visit.  What is important for me to say is this.  No matter the position departments take on the value of outcomes assessment and the procedures for measuring it, the Higher Learning Commission has established a concrete list of standards that each university must meet in order to avoid minor or major repercussions.  Since we can only hurt the institution by refusing to cooperate or communicate with the requests of our Assessment Committee, every department simply must commit to meeting the basic requirements.  My hope all along has been that departments and professors will plan their strategies in a way that combines improvement meaningful to them with meeting imposed standards.  All involved will continue to watch this closely.  The deans and the department chairs are already discussing approaches to clarifying issues and resolving the dilemma.  Dr. Swenson will provide as much support, suggestions, and specificity as she can to help the process along. 

I am not ignoring the possible need for a Director of Assessment on the campus.  And I would be happy to receive your views on the pros and cons of establishing such a position.  Whichever way we may move in that direction, each department needs to assess now where it stands with assessment.  For those who have fallen behind, I am asking that you reestablish priorities of labor in the department in order to catch up.  If we do not meet their standards now, we all need to know that North Central will be back, perhaps sooner than we wish.

            I think I should stop here.  But not before saying thank-you for the day-to-day excellence of what you do.  As we move forward, I hope we can be conscious, individually and as a community, of joining together rather than separating, of finding good rather than finding fault, but mostly of standing back and enjoying the privilege of what we do here.  I have interviewed in the last several weeks nearly seventy-five candidates for jobs in various departments.  They come to us from all over the world.   For most of them, their commitment to the scholarly and teaching life almost visibly oozes from their pores.  Some tell stories of a life at other institutions that amaze me and that remind how well we have it here.  As I said earlier, we are not a perfect body, but we are much better in all ways than sometimes we let ourselves think or say.  Happy spring, if it ever comes.  Thank-you.