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Opening address to general faculty 2004-2005

Newton Smith, Chair of the Faculty
August 19, 2004

Download and listen to this speech (MP3)

I call the 2004-2005 General Faculty meeting to order.

It is good to see so many of you. I am tempted to ask how you got here, and if you know of anyone still stuck on our roundabout. Putting a roundabout on a campus is a bad idea for a group known to go round and round about any subject. Western these days is like a science fiction movie. One day you come in and the entrance is brand new. Then they close it again. Then they tear up all the roads coming to campus. They tell you to move out of your office by Friday, and then they tell you your new office won't be open until Wednesday. Welcome to the fun house. I just hope you can find your way back to your department when this is over.

Before I turn the podium over to Chancellor Bardo and Professor Mary Adams, our senior Faculty Assembly Delegate, I want to welcome the new faculty this year—some 74 of you. You are an extraordinarily talented addition to this campus. In the last four years including this year, we have seen over 240 new faculty faces. For eighty percent of the faculty, Dr. Bardo is the only Chancellor they have known at Western. You are the new WCU, and we are looking forward to what you will bring to our campus. You are joining a faculty of great teachers, innovative and pragmatic researchers, and committed colleagues who you will find to be supportive, intriguing, and delightful. We welcome you and the talents and fresh perspectives you bring to us. Would the new faculty please stand so that we can welcome you and applaud your coming to this campus?

I see Deborah Bardo in the audience and June, my wife, and other spouses too. Thanks for your precious support and also for your forbearance when we in ignorance ignore your good advice. I see members of our staff and administration in the audience too. Without you our classrooms would be dark, the plumbing would not work, our offices would be even more cluttered and dirtier than they are, and without registration, recruiting and advising, the classrooms and residence halls would be empty. Join me in thanking our staff and administrators for all that they do in service to the mission of this institution.

This promises to be another momentous year here at Western, but we must remember that we inherit the passionate commitment, the perseverance, the creativity, the wisdom, and the generous humanity of our older colleagues and predecessors. In that spirit I honor them all, the Faculty Senate, and Senate Chairs who have preceded me, especially the most recent, Casey Hurley and Terry Kinnear, and all those who have committed their lives to the spirit of this university.

And now I present Chancellor Bardo followed by Dr. Mary Adams.

Thank you Dr. Bardo and Dr. Adams.

Two years ago, Chancellor Bardo, I urged you to get out of town and find us more money, more programs, and more faculty positions. You did and look at us now. Buildings are springing up everywhere, Hollywood-like studios, two engineering degrees, doctoral programs, plans for a $34 million Health Sciences building, a footprint in the $38 health leadership facility with the MAHEC center in Asheville, over 200 additional acres of campus, plus mud everywhere. There are almost no roads or sidewalks left. We need global positioning devices to get to our classes. Give us a break. It's time to come back home for a spell. We need to catch our breath.

Of course we know that break won't happen. Not after your speech. With 8,100 enrolled students this year and talk of being at 10,000 in only four years, we might as well realize we are on a roller coaster ride without guide rails for the near future. Where are we headed? That is what I want to talk about today.

I came to Western Carolina University in 1968, before some of you were out of diapers or maybe not yet in diapers. The influx of faculty and students in those years transformed this university then just as the new faculty and students will transform what we know as Western today.

Those were exciting days, filled with passion and a clash of ideals, fed on hope and the belief that we could make a difference in the world we inherited from our predecessors. Sometimes I look back on the intensity of those years with nostalgia. I remember our compact, little picturesque campus, our sense of camaraderie, the emphasis on justice, and our commitment to the ecology and to those less fortunate. And I remember the students who viewed a college education as an opportunity not a birthright and a career necessity.

I know. I am looking at the good old days with rose-colored, rear-view mirrors. The truth is that just as the sixties and early seventies were filled with conflict and discord on the national scene, we had our share of dissention and anguish here on campus. Coming out of a cocoon is always a struggle even for butterflies.

I believe we are beginning just such a metamorphosis today. And it promises to be equally as exciting and transformational. None of us knows what lies ahead in terms of opportunities or obstacles. You have heard the Chancellor's summary of the changes headed our way and no doubt sense his excitement. But what will it mean for us? I think of these lines from Keats' poem, “On First Looking into Chapman's Homer”:

Then I felt like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken;

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes

He stared at the Pacific—and all his men

Looked at each other with a wild surmise—

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Some of us are excited by the vista before us, but I suspect many of us are silent and filled with questions as we look out into the future and secretly cherish the past encased in our amber memories.

This summer, June and I went to Spain for our vacation. It was one of the most entrancing trips we have ever taken, a salad bowl of colors, cultures, history—and new construction. Everywhere we looked seemed to call for a photograph. But it was almost impossible to get a shot without getting a building crane or a front-end loader in the picture. It reminded me of Cullowhee.

But one of the lessons I took from my trip is this. At the core of every vibrant city was its historic center with streets still as narrow and meandering among the warren of dwellings as they were back in the 10 th or 17 th century. In particular I remember the Mezquita in Cordoba , located only a few blocks from the main thoroughfare of the city. Cordoba was a Moorish city, the largest, most prosperous city in Europe, outshining Byzantium and Baghdad in science and scholarship in the tenth century. The Moorish Mezquita was built on Visigoth and Roman ruins just as the Catholics built a cathedral on that site the 15 th century. Each generation venerated and used previous generations' advances to create a new vision for themselves.

Spain was on my mind when, at the beginning of the summer, the Chancellor asked me to begin work on strategic planning, starting with a strategic plan for Educational Technology to be completed by the end of fall term and continuing throughout the year developing the university's strategic plan as faculty co-chair with Troy Barksdale, the Director of University Planning. I immediately thought of those cities and how they retained their identities yet transformed and renewed themselves over time. A university too is built on the foundations laid by previous generations. It is a curious mixture of the old and the new, a place where each generation picks up from the rubble of previous generations what is needed to build new structures. What will we keep standing from out of our past? What will we tear down? And how will we know what to use and what to do? Questions and more questions.

Picasso once said, “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.” It is true. Art and life are more about questions than about answers. Suzanne Langer once wrote that every age is defined by the questions it asks not by its answers. I am excited about working on this university's strategic plan. But I know the questions we ask each other will be the most important work we do. It is hard to sit patiently with the questions instead of rushing in with answers that worked in the past, but if we are really transforming ourselves we need to keep asking questions.

At the center of every strategic plan is a vision question: how do we want the world to be when our work is finished generations from now? A vision is built upon ideals we hold on to despite never quite achieving them. Each of us has a set of words we cherish as talismans: courage, compassion, justice, humility, openness, loyalty, curiosity, humor, and so on. But do we mean the same thing by those watchwords? I believe that is where we should start: by sharing the vocabularies of what we value, discovering how each of us views the future. A Chinese proverb says, “One generation plants the trees; another eats the fruit and sits in the shade.” What fruit and what kind of shade? Those are the questions that will shape the future of our children, our students, and our institution.

When you look at all the construction outside and read about our new programs and witness the surge of new students, and listen to the Chancellor talk so excitedly about the future of Western, it becomes clear our current mission statement no longer fits. A mission begins with this question: “What change do we want to make in society and in the lives of human beings in order to bring our vision closer to reality?” How can we possibly agree on what changes we, as a university, want to create in the world if we have not talked with colleagues in other colleges, other disciplines, and in other buildings to learn what they hold dear?

Just over the border in Tennessee is an institution called the Highlander Center. It has had a remarkable history of activism in the American social landscape. It had a major impact on the civil rights movement. Rosa Parks had just left the Highlander Center two weeks before that historic moment when she decided not to go to the back of the bus. The song “We Shall Overcome,” was written at the Highlander Center , and thousands of literacy teachers were trained there for the voter registration drives during the civil rights movement. I mention the Highlander Center because of the way it works. They bring together people with the same problem and put them in a large round room in a circle of rocking chairs. There are no experts to tell those gathered what to do. They are the ones with the problem, and so they become their own experts by sharing their stories and frustrations and dreams and, eventually, their strategies. That is what I want the Chancellor to build us next: a big round room so nobody can be cornered, a place for hammering out our future, a place where we can break down the silos that separate us, a circle where disciplines, and rank, and positions have an equal place, and where our ideals and our realities can be tested. Oh, and rocking chairs would be nice too.

When we begin to talk about our values, our vision, and our mission, we will raise up disagreements. I say, that is what a university is all about—the passionate exchange of ideas. A university is where beliefs and creeds and theories are tested. A university should cherish disagreement, for it is only in the agora or marketplace of dialogue and debate that we learn to understand one another and ourselves. Indeed, truth is born only through intellectual struggle. That is what Socrates modeled for us.

How peaceful it is when there is agreement. But a consensus often suggests we have stopped asking questions. Franklin D. Roosevelt had a very simple rule: If you have consensus on an important matter, don't make the decision. Adjourn so that everybody has time to think. Important decisions are risky. They should be controversial.

I expect passionate disagreement as we move forward toward our new vision and mission statement, just as the dissent was passionate in the sixties and seventies. This is not a time for magical thinking or party-line dogma. Our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.

A university, indeed American Democracy, depends for its very existence on the force of reason and the proof of ideas by experiment and accumulated evidence. I say let the dissent begin so that we can discover our mission together. Helen Keller once wrote, “I rejoice that I live in such a splendidly disturbing time. It is time for fearless thinking.”

What will be our mission? What are our responsibilities? When you hear the Chancellor, or me, talk about engagement and service to the region, what do we mean? What does engagement have to do with history, or psychology, or English, or engineering technology? Is it just a catch phase the Chancellor uses to impress legislators, or is it something we too own? What is our idea of a millennial campus? If Cullowhee is to be the next Florence , where is the Medici money? If we yearn for this age's Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio or Michelangelo, Leonardo, or Galileo are we prepared for the next Machiavelli or the burning of our Savanarola?

Chancellor Bardo may be our Cortez looking out over new horizons. But we must remember: we are there on that peak in Darien with him. It is time for us to give voice to what we see out there where we are headed.

A lot of change is on the way. On August 30, we will have another candidate on campus interviewing as our Provost. I urge you to be there, ask questions, and share your views with the search committee. This afternoon is the conference on Academic Honesty. I think that honesty and trust and justice are core values of a university. I urge you to be there too.

Tomorrow, at 3 o'clock in the Natural Sciences Auditorium we will hold our Fall Open Faculty Caucus. This is where the general faculty gets to voice its concerns and questions and set the agenda for the Faculty Senate. As you heard, the Chancellor has asked the Senate to take up serious issues this year, especially how we encourage and reward faculty for service to the region and for applied research. We were already planning to re-examine university policies about tenure, promotion, and the expectations of faculty, so this will add to the debate. We will be asking the departments to re-examine their tenure and promotion documents. We will again examine how raises and merit pay increases are distributed. We will be passing a new standardized student evaluation form. We will re-examine intellectual property and how it is understood in this electronic age. We will be revising our grievance and hearing procedures. We have created a university-wide curriculum committee, and I can guarantee that will set off debates. And of course there will be continuing buzz about Educational Technology. It will be fun, full of debate, and questions, and you are all invited. Three o'clock on Friday at the Natural Science Auditorium. As Marian Wright Edelman said, “It's time for greatness -- not for greed. It's a time for idealism -- not ideology. It is a time not just for compassionate words, but compassionate action.”

You will all be hearing about the SACS conference September 23rd. Strategic plans are one of the first things SACS teams look at as they are assessing universities. This fall David Luginbuhl and I will visit each department in the process of developing a strategic plan for Educational Technology. Other agencies will begin the same process. By the end of the year everything will be up in the air. But that is good. Margaret Wheatley once said, “ The things we fear most in organizations -- fluctuations, disturbances, imbalances -- are the primary sources of creativity.”

Yesterday morning at breakfast June and I watched a golden eagle perched on our birdhouse in our backyard. It seemed like an appropriate image for the beginning of this year. It is time for us to be like eagles: vigilant, vigorous, and brave in our questioning and our daring. Erich Fromm said, “Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties.” Let's listen and respect one another. And let's enjoy the exchange of ideas. If we are fierce in the pursuit of excellence, we will spread our wings and soar. Have a good semester. Ask questions. Be passionate in your discussions. And laugh a lot. Oh, if you are not flying yet, watch for the mud on your way back.

The Fall Meeting is adjourned.

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