The University Record, June 19, 1995

Whitaker delivers final speech to Senate Assembly

Editor's Note: Gilbert R. Whitaker, Jr. delivered his final speech as provost to the Senate Assmebly on May 15.

Members of the Senate Assembly, friends, former friends, future friends, enemies, former enemies, and future enemies, colleagues and others. I am pleased to be with you this afternoon in my last formal appearance as a member of the University Central Administration. At the end of August, I will drop all additional titles and relish once again having the only University title that I aspired to when I first joined the Northwestern faculty of 1960--professor.

While I am moving on, I do cherish the opportunities that I have had to serve this University and several others as a faculty member serving in an administrative role. Such service is important to the University and is a role that deserves from the rest of us more thanks and less criticism. While I could spend considerable time--much perhaps self-serving--on that important topic, I am not going to do so.

Instead, I want to return to some of the themes that I have talked with you about over the last five years as well as to others over a much longer period. These themes will be familiar--academic integrity and academic freedom, respect and openness, commitment to learning for all members of our community and accountability. Like most professors, we widely recognize that self-discipline is the best way to forestall discipline by others. However, like others, self-indulgence is much easier to achieve.

I return to these themes, not because we are uniformly on the wrong side of these issues, because we are not. Neither are we perfect--we are much too human to be perfect. However, we are often viewed by those outside the academy as perhaps more self-righteous than righteous on many important aspects of these fundamental values of an academic community.

Academic freedom and academic integrity--perhaps two different values but I want to say a few things about both, and I won't try to make fine distinctions at this point. First, I remain deeply concerned that this body would adopt with such limited discussion a statement on the meaning of tenure that, in my view, so profoundly confuses the role of tenure in protecting academic freedom. It confuses by encouraging the notion that not doing one's academic work is without consequence because of tenure. The confusion of freedom and duty, I think, leads many to question the integrity of academics who call, appropriately, for freedom to pursue discovery wherever it takes one and simultaneously assert that this freedom also means that one has limited or no responsibility to those who provide the means to make this freedom possible. If you have not seen nor read the thoughtful statement by the elected members of the LSA Executive Committee on this issue, I commend it to you.

While I am very pleased with the general openness of much of this University to interdisciplinary work, I am often disappointed by the lack of respect for the disciplines that are not one's own. Fortunately, this is not universal, but it is deeply troubling when it appears in a community of scholars. The stereotyping that rears its ugly head when work in an applied field is discredited by those whose views are based on ignorance, not knowledge, reflects a disgraceful lack of openness and a significant departure from the concept of academic freedom.

At the risk of being too personal, I am troubled by the reaction of many members of this community to using knowledge derived from the operation of organizations in other fields of human endeavor such as business. Such a reacation is extremely narrow-minded and coming most often from stereotyping -- not observation or analysis. Similar examples of academic snobbery instead of academic respect and openness can easily be provided by many of you. The point is not personal, it is professional. New knowledge comes from many sources; that knowledge should be valued in a community such as ours. Mutual respect is essential in a healthy environment to maximize the discovery of new knowledge and new connections among the many disciplines. Indeed, it has been said that the current academic disciplines are our inventions, not that of the forces which we describe and study.

This leads me to my concern for a broader and deeper commitment to learning by all members of our community--faculty and students alike. During my tenure as Provost, I have placed considerable importance on demonstrated commitment to competence in teaching as an important value in promotion, tenure and in new appointments to the faculty. My concern is not so much that teaching is an art form and should be put on a pedestal, but that its importance should be considered much more profoundly. That is, concern for teaching usually reflects a much deeper concern for learning. Learning is, in my view, a shared process between and among the members of the university community. Learning results from our behavior as individual scholars, as teachers, as colleagues, as students and as friends. The university can and should be a community where every member is both student and teacher. All are learners. Learning can be and is often used as a shorthand description of the reason for our existence as a social institution.

Because in our setting, a setting generously provided by a grateful society, learning can be greatly enhanced when it is the very center of our engagement with each other, we must hold it as a central value. Demonstrated interest in the learning of others must be a central value in our daily life. Commitment to student learning through high quality teaching in all of its forms should be a fundamental requirement for membership in the community.

Accountability underlies all of these values, but its applicability is not limited to our accountability to each other but is pervasive in determining society's willingness to support our efforts in learning. While financial support is critical to our accomplishments, it is less critical than the deeper support of being valued by society for the knowledge that we produce and the knowledge that we transfer to others through sharing our discoveries and our thoughts through the increasingly wide media of communication in the classroom and beyond.

When we fail to meet our responsibilities by lack of concern for teaching our students, by falsifying data to increase our record of "scholarship," by intimidating students or others for sexual favors or by stereotyping each other because of race, gender, geography, field of interest or any other irrelevant criteria, we are held accountable by society.

While I don't have any specific action steps to propose, I do believe that faculty and especially faculty governance needs to move its attention from that of protecting assumed privileges of tenure and membership in the academic community to these fundamental value issues. Indeed, my feeling has been that too much of your and our time has been concerned with individual privilege and too little with the duties and responsibilities of all.

Accountability as an issue is important not just at Michigan but throughout higher education. At stake is the role of independent centers of learning--places which must use well the freedom that society has to date bestowed on universities--the freedom to think and explore the unknown.

I have recently read that as much as 75 percent of the professoriate will turn over in the next 15 to 20 years. If we don't get our values clear and understood for ourselves, what chance is there to pass them on to this new generation?

These remarks may seem unduly harsh. They come from a person who loves the academy--who wants to see it survive--indeed grow and prosper. I believe that to do so, we must take on the task from within. If not, others surely will.

Thank you for an exciting, interesting, and sometimes painful, but often joyful five years.