Remarks at Faculty Retreat
In our conversations about Cape Ann—whether describing the rocky shorelines or the salt marshes, the thin oaks or the receding tides—we talked about the layers in the terrain. The ledge, or worn granite, that is a remnant of a massive mountain range leveled by glacier, a product of many millennia of erosion. The colored soil, the product of centuries of wind, snow and water. The oak roots and thick brush, the result of decades. The moss, lichen and moist vegetation, the growth of a single season. The early morning slants of light, the discovery of a single moment . . .
It was much the same in our conversations about life as liberal arts colleagues. Each institution has what Wendell Berry calls “living ground,” a legacy of shared experiences that often amount to more than mission statements and marketing campaigns. It is the way in which a community inhabits a common space, as well as the accumulated strata of many memories, hopes and frustrations, breakthroughs and shortfalls. At its best, a liberal arts college has its own unique histories and paths, but it also has something that comes with the finest abstraction—the capacity to evoke broader possibilities, to awaken the imagination of its audiences. When Bruce gave me the painting, he spoke of the texture of the particular and the universal, “the quality of particularity that opens into a larger vision; the universality of the human experience colored by the local scene.”
As I think of my goals for the coming year—the first year when I can offer Westmont my undivided attention—one of my foremost and most joyful tasks will be to know more about Westmont’s living ground. I realize that I won’t really know Westmont until I take a few more walks with Paul Willis through the ravines and chaparral on and around campus, or linger with colleagues watching the sunlight in the crevasses on the Santa Ynez Mountains. I won’t know Westmont until I hear more stories about joys and sorrows of the faculty, including those who have already come before us. I won’t know Westmont until I have learned about projects that have flourished and failed, the rocks that still linger in the way of key goals, the hopes and dreams of the many faculty who have shared this space for years. So listening and learning—and a few more of those faculty desserts that we started last spring—remain at the top of the list.
Among other major goals, there is a recurrent theme of the universal and particular, or the interplay between the broad trends and context of higher education and the challenges of our specific campus. Here are a few of those challenges:
Westmont has a vibrant tradition of faculty governance, one that is central to the distinctively liberal arts ethos of the institution. My hope is certainly to preserve and even to enrich that. Shared governance does require shared responsibility . . . and a mutual exploration of some of the larger cultural and economic currents in which we are endeavoring to operate a multi-faceted institution. There is no question that these pressures are going to force institutions to adjust and to adapt, even if only to sustain what they value most. Higher education can anticipate more regulation, diminishing state funding, as well as greater personnel and benefit costs; it is also one of the industries where technology actually increases the costs of services rather than reduces them. We can’t address this challenge if we simply keep our eyes on our own particular campus, or rehearse our past frustrations or preferences. We need to look squarely at some of the increasing pressures on our financial and academic model. So, in the spirit of shared governance, Gayle Beebe and I are going to do our best throughout the year to convey something of these pressures and the choices that they present us, relying on the primary faculty committees like the Faculty Council, the Senate, and the strategic planning groups. Some of these challenges will not be easy to face, but our hope is to welcome faculty into a more dynamic partnership with us in assessing the future.
Like the best athletic training, the health of shared governance often depends on good routines and habits, rather than periodic workouts after long idleness. With that in mind, the Provost’s Office will be endeavoring this year to clarify some regular routines and protocols about decision making, including a more predictable planning and reporting calendar. Patti Hunter will be giving special attention to working with these matters, particularly in her work with the department chairs.
All this, of course, can sound like more and more layers of work. No doubt we will be continually enlarging our scope. But I also think that one of the tasks of a provost is to strive to prune and to refine, not simply to add on, so I will be commonly referring to our search for an “elegant simplicity” in our governance and planning protocols.
Christian Understanding and Program Review
A strong process of program review does require us to look at the broad picture—not only to the expectations of the accrediting bodies but also to the “best practices” of the higher education community. To our benefit, higher education has been allowed to rely primarily on peer evaluations rather than on government regulators, so we have a stake in making peer assessment succeed. It is in our interests, then, to learn from the best practices of our peers within the academy and to consider how they might amplify and refine our own particular strategies at Westmont.
But the broad panorama of peer review and the task of assessment can also become reductive, especially if they define educational values and quality exclusively by those numbers designed to measure one institution against another. Data can provide many valuable glimpses into students’ progress, and they often alert us to needs and deficiencies that may have slipped our attention. But they cannot fill the full lens required for liberal learning. And they certainly cannot tell the full story of what it means to learn, mature and grow as a Christian.
We will feel that tension this year as we endeavor to assess students' “Christian understanding” and “practices.” On the one hand, we do want to collect data that give us valuable snapshots of our students’ knowledge and aptitudes. What do they know about biblical content and theology? How well can they relate that knowledge to their lives and culture? What are the habits and practices that define their worship and spiritual development? But we need to embed that analysis of data in a larger dialogue about spiritual formation at Westmont—a dialogue that is generative, invigorating, and even a little messy now and then. So we will go forward this year with some surveys and measurements, but I want to pay special heed to how we surround and absorb those measurements into a fuller conversation about spiritual formation. I have confidence in the conversation itself: simply nourishing that discussion about spiritual formations helps all of us to think freshly about our work.
I’ve mentioned often before my interest in international programs and my respect for the study-abroad tradition that has been established at Westmont. International study has expanded substantially at American colleges and universities in the past decade, and there are significant trends and changes apparent on the horizon of global education that merit our consideration. We have asked Jim Wright to help us explore some of these features. This year he is investigating some of the finest practices and possibilities for pre- and post-trip education as well as the most meaningful ways of gauging how students have developed during their time in off-campus programs.
My hope is that we can indeed increase and enrich opportunities for international study—but that will require a vigorous appraisal of our infrastructure and our financial policies for supporting our “global plank.” At present, we are underwriting many aspects of our international programs with tuition from campus residents, especially when we consider the rise in financial aid that goes to support off-campus study. Also, the oversight of the global endeavors comprises only a fraction of Bill Wright’s time. That’s not a reasonable burden on Bill, especially given the scope, risk, and importance of our international programs. So, in anticipation of expanding endeavors—such as possible Westmont programs in Asia and Africa—I’ve asked that this year be a time for reshaping our financial models and infrastructure for global study. We will look together at our options for doing so.
A Pedagogy of Renewal and Hospitality
All of us need to keep our eyes on innovations in teaching, adapting our strategies in light of the most interesting research and experiments about learning in our respective fields. But I still think that one of the richest aspects of working at a small, interdisciplinary liberal arts college occurs when we learn from our neighbors in the next hallway or the next building. Good faculty development programs support research opportunities for faculty, including “release time” to do scholarship and to travel to conferences where we join a larger conversation. But Westmont also has on the books some faculty development programs that encourage learning communities among faculty on campus, such as the reading groups and Scholars’ Retreat. I trust that we can nourish and eventually expand them.
One program receiving special focus this year is our “Mutual Mentoring” program, which Deborah Dunn oversees, with some financial assistance from a Lilly Endowment grant that she wrote. We have tried to refine the program to keep it simple, something that rejuvenates rather than burdens faculty. I hope that this simplified approach will succeed, which may spare us from having to consider some of the more conventional post-tenure review formulas. With the help of Patti Hunter, I have also added a new category to the faculty development program, which will focus primarily on pedagogy, most notably on the ways that we disperse innovations among one another and bolster our partnership with co-curricular staff. Parker Palmer often describes the classroom as hospitable space for students to test ideas; I hope that Westmont will always be hospitable space for faculty and co-curricular leaders to test strategies and to refine ideas with a generous give-and-take among colleagues.
I heartily embrace the notion that the liberal arts are excellent preparation for a life and a career. Liberal arts colleges can continue to take heart from the studies that indicate how well their graduates eventually do in the workplace. But there are also greater and greater concerns today about how often liberal arts graduates stumble or drift in the immediate months and years after they leave campus. Public perceptions, fed both by hasty editorials but also by some sound studies, are increasingly worried that the tuition of a private liberal arts college may not be worth the investment. Some schools have responded with a plethora of applied or vocation programs. That’s not Westmont’s mission—but I do think that Westmont will be well served if we provide more assistance to our students as they launch. Can we help them identify more internship opportunities, prepare stronger graduate school applications, and identify good post-baccalaurate steps? As we consider ways of launching seniors from Westmont, I would also like to explore ways that we can help new students launch their college careers. How do we enrich the first-year experience? How do we help them anticipate using their Westmont years well to prepare for the season that will follow Commencement? Wrestling with these issues will require a strong partnership between the faculty and the co-curricular staff, but it is the kind of partnership that should be energizing and supportive of the liberal arts.
Let me conclude with a reference to a final gift that is sitting on my cabinet: a transcription of Philippians 2:4-7 calligraphed in both Chinese and English. The passage is that great hymn about the humility of Christ: “Have this attitude in yourselves, which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a bond-servant . . . “ The calligraphy artist is a former colleague, a business professor, originally from Hong Kong, who turned to education after a highly successful career in finance in the Northeast. But she wanted to teach—and, despite her considerable success on the Wall Streets of the world, approached her new role with a hunger to learn, a deep respect for the craft of veteran professors, and a humble curiosity that is rare for high achievers.
I will keep that Philippians passage on the cabinet as an inspiration for the year. I have now been a chief academic officer for 19 years, enough to get settled in my ways. But I begin anew at a new place. Some things about this job are universal; much, though, depends on understanding and valuing the particular ethos of a place. I will make my mistakes, stumble over some landmines, and discover so much about what I do not know. A regular reminder of Christ’s humility will be good medicine. But it will also be an inspiration to remember the many textures and wide expansion of the Gospel: a Greek hymn with echoes of Isaiah’s Hebrew, familiar to me in English, and now transcribed in Chinese as a gift and a work of art.
I hope this year sends us into many far places and opportunities—and draws us nearer.