The University Record, November 9, 1998

Remarks by Provost Nancy Cantor

The issues that we are tackling at this retreat on “The Future of the Faculty and the University” are complex, and progress will require the sharing of all our perspectives and insights. We have just heard about the historical and national context for this discussion. What I would like to do now is add some words about “value setting,” if you will, as we think about the university of the future and the faculty of the future here at Michigan. These are obviously going to be my personal views on some values that might set a context for our discussion.

I think the over-arching tug of war that we are going to be dealing with at Michigan for some time to come is really the tension between the need to preserve what makes us feel we have a faculty of integrity and excellence—a whole that is more than the sum of the parts—and the need to be responsive and to change and grow as what we are trying to accomplish in the University changes. It would be crazy, in some sense, for us not to think about the nature of the faculty changing, as what we are trying to accomplish changes. As a psychologist, I want to point out that this tug of war between preservation and change is in fact a basis for human growth and development, so it should not surprise us that we are in a constant back-and-forth between a sense of wanting to preserve what we have and a sense of needing to accommodate change. This is the Piagetian model of human growth and development; let us assume that this model will also be true for organizations like ours. Accordingly, our task involves articulating some central values that can frame a discussion of what we should struggle to preserve, and what we might want to stretch and change in flexibly accommodating the future. What are the values we want to hook to the questions about the future of the faculty?

For me, the first value that I always come to is this: what do we really mean when we define ourselves as a great public research university? I take as very central to my task, and to our task collectively, to give a sense of identity to the conjoining of those three essential terms in the phrase “great public research university.” We are not just a research university, we are not just a public university, and we are not just a great university. We have, perhaps, a unique burden in that there are very few other institutions that strive to combine those three aspects in one identity. Thinking about what we mean by that, and therefore about the implications for our faculty, it seems to me that we have always cared deeply as an institution not just about the knowledge we are creating and transmitting, and the ways in which we communicate it, although surely those things, but we also have cared deeply about who we are and how we interact within the walls of our community. Perhaps that is a part of our publicness, of our greatness, or of our research orientation; perhaps it is the conjoining of those three. But indeed, we have had persistent dialogue over the history of this University about literally who we are. Who are our students, our faculty, and our staff? Where do we come from? What are our passions, our talents, and our expertise? What are our roles? These issues are not new to us, and I would argue that it is actually vital to this institution that we continue an examination of who we are, who comprises this great institution and, most importantly, how we interact, how we do our work, and then how we come together.

When he participated in Rackham’s 50th anniversary celebration, David Hollinger identified an historical imperative at this University that he thought many universities in this country do not have. He argued that the historical imperative for Michigan was to be inclusive and wide-ranging— in who we are and in what we work on, what we teach, what research we do, what service we do. David talked about Michigan’s special burden, or special passion if you want to be positive about it, to do everything reasonably well. This is clearly in some major sense tied to our publicness, to our sense of a public mandate to support the state and to provide nationally a sense of giving back. However, this need to do everything reasonably well is, I think, very much at the heart of the question of who we are as a faculty. But there is a tension here if you go back to this idea of a great public research university. In fact, we do not want to do everything reasonably well, we want to do everything “greatly.” So that is a real pressure on us, and I want to put that out for your consideration as we start to think about the future. How are we to be inclusive, in who we are and what we work on? How are we to be so wide-ranging, both in our mixture of professional schools, in the breadth and depth of our offerings, and in the diverse population of people we bring together on this campus? And how do we do all of that with a sense of shared mission about greatness? I absolutely believe we can, in fact, I believe we must. That is what is so wonderful about this place, but it takes constant effort.

The other thread that our historical imperative weaves into our publicness is a sense of permeability between the boundaries of the community we create and the community we are intimately hooked into, both in the state and more broadly. We have a constant national intent and an extensive definition of who we are that goes beyond our immediate boundaries. You see this in our efforts to work with our local community as we develop a campus master plan; in our research institutes, which are a wonderful combination of basic and applied work in the public interest; in the industry-academic relationships that we foster in our schools; in our pre-college programs. You surely see this effort in the breaking-down of boundaries with respect to the non-traditional classroom. What indeed is a classroom? How and in what ways does community service learning, for example, become a piece of our traditional curriculum? So when we talk today about the changing nature of the professoriate, we need to do this within the context of our historical imperative to be inclusive and wide-ranging and to create permeable boundaries with the communities outside our walls so we can be responsive to changing public values and needs.

We must also be cognizant of significant changes in the composition of the faculty, and this context, too, must inform our discussion. I obtained from the American Association of Universities data that show a profile very similar to the one we shared with you: a faculty that is more diverse, less stable, more spread between practice and theory, more interdisciplinary, less full-time, more split between teaching and research, and I could go on. This changing profile has repercussions for how we interact as a faculty, and again this is mirrored in the AAU data. We have less closeness in our core faculty the more we are pulled in all these directions, the more permeable our boundaries are with the external world; and we have more multiple identities, each of us. We have probably less comfort in our shared world view on this campus than we have had for some time, and that comes again with the changing nature of the professoriate, the diversity of passions and expertise that we bring to bear.

The value to be inclusive and wide-ranging raises difficult questions. How can any individual faculty member do all the things that are now required to maintain that historical imperative? What are we going to do to support people in these jobs to avoid the kind of burn-out one would imagine would come if you are trying to spread yourself across so many roles? How can one person do everything? And what are the various roles we need to keep going in order to be permeable, to be as responsive as we have been, and must continue to be?

Now the other piece of the Michigan value system, or at least my slice of the value system, is the great value we have placed on our many nested communities within this large institution. The historical solution we have found for being inclusive and wide-ranging is that we have created multiple layers of nested and intersecting communities on this campus, and we have allowed those communities to be autonomous and to be empowered. We have not attempted to be one whole with a very homogenous profile, all doing one thing and sharing a lot of values. We have instead taken the inclusiveness that Professor Hollinger talked about, and we have played it out in multiple communities, and now in multiple tracks in our faculty, multiple institutes, centers, schools and colleges—lots of different activities and ways that the work gets done.

The question I would ask, and a dimension I would add to the great value I think we all share on the notion of empowerment and autonomy, is this: what is the public good that is left in the University? In this changing profile, in this great inclusive responsiveness that we love and cherish, what does it mean to be part of the University? And indeed, more concretely for the faculty, what does it mean to be part of this great University? Surely tenure is one of our cherished public goods. One of the reasons it is cherished is in part its history in terms of academic freedom, but I think it actually goes quite beyond specifics of cherishing academic freedom. I think tenure as a public good signifies for us, or historically has signified, a devotion to a common fate, a sense of belongingness to the University as a whole, a loyalty, if you will. That is, this sense of dedication to the fate of the University, of interdependence between one’s own fate and the fate of the University as a whole, is both signified by and carried with tenure. It really matters then, as we diversify the faculty in every possible way, both in its stability or lack of stability and in its narrowness of task orientation within a particular nested community, that the faculty now becomes an integrated part of the whole. In their forthcoming book, The New Academic Generation: A Profession in Transformation, Dr. Jack Schuster and his colleagues talk about this need to think about how we can preserve or replace or find another way to get the kind of loyalty to the University as a whole when you have a much more fluid faculty profile.

I think the question for us, the real burden for us, is how to preserve that sense of loyalty to the institution and to the fate of the institution, when you are bringing people in and out on short time periods, when people have external involvements, and so their lives are not as intertwined and the interdependence is not as clear. Moreover, as Schuster and his colleagues noted, the loyalty of the institution to the individual may also be perceived as less, as signified by short-term contracts, by a different set of rights and responsibilities, by different levels of participation in governance, by not sitting at all the same tables as the tenured faculty. As soon as you start pulling apart that sense of interdependence that tenure has always signified for a core faculty in the kind of diversification that our historical mandate would say we should do, then as an institution, you have to face the question of how we value our common fate. What kinds of rights and responsibilities do we accord to everyone in a faculty rank in order to really engender the same sense of commitment and loyalty going both ways, from the institution to the individual and from the individual to the institution? So whereas we may believe that we absolutely need the kind of diversity of expertise and passions and accommodations to different aspects of the demands of the external world, within the institution we have to be aware that it is changing the nature of the community that we have on the ground in the institution. And for me at least, preserving some sense of community is the key to how we keep together the great public research university. So we have to come to terms with that, I believe. We cannot be a great public research university if we are not a university, if we do not have, however creatively we do it, a social compact between our faculty and the institution as an institution. And that is a two-way compact: we have to give rights and responsibilities, but individuals have to give a sense of belonging and loyalty.

But we need to recognize that creating that sense of belonging and loyalty is not going to be easy, in part because we are asking our faculty to do so much more. Additional pressures arise from our desire to relate to an increasingly diverse student body, to teach more and to be better teachers, to connect to industry and produce intellectual property, to impart practical as well as theoretical skills, to work at the interdisciplinary interface of emerging fields, to be technologically sophisticated in instruction as well as in research, to teach at long distance to new groups of community members, to be open to the media. We could go on and on, and there is probably nothing on that list that a great public research university can afford not to be doing. If that is the case, we cannot meet these demands with a core, homogenous faculty. We have no option, or desire, to return to the model of a homogenous faculty, where everyone does everything.

I have one more value to talk about that frames the set of questions we have, and for me personally, it is the most important. In addition to the imperative to be inclusive and wide-ranging, and balanced against the imperative to retain a sense of loyalty to the University as we grow and diversify, it seems to me that our publicness, our greatness, our place as a research university have always depended on our willingness to be very flexible in our construals of what we value. That is, what is really unique about the Michigan experience—for all of us, faculty, students, and staff—is that we learn that our first assumptions about what is interesting, beautiful, or valuable are indeed only that, first assumptions, and that our neighbor, colleague, mentor, or peer, can teach us something else about how to construe beauty or expertise or smartness. In other words, what we have always valued at this great public research university is an openness to change our mind about what is interesting and what is valuable and what is good and what is quality. This diversity of perspective-taking is at the core of the creativity and liveliness of this institution.

Where am I going with this? What I am saying to add to what Lee said last night about being a place of great quality is that we have to be a place willing to stretch what we mean by quality. What is great about this place is that we do not let other people out there in the world define for us at any given point what is smart or beautiful or interesting. We do this by coming together in groups across fields, and that is why interdisciplinary work is so important to me. We do this by coming together across life experience, and that is why diversity is so important on this campus. We do this together across faculty lines, expertise and jobs. And, unfortunately, the burden that goes with needing to stretch one’s sense of what is good and interesting work is that we have to be willing to constantly evolve new evaluative systems for our faculty. If we are going to fulfill our historical imperative, and if we are going to keep loyalty to the institution, we cannot dig in our heels and rigidly define what is quality in faculty work. We have to be able to hold high standards that are indeed flexible themselves, not flexible in their height, but flexible in their basis for the judgment. I think that is the most difficult task ahead of us. I think we can all learn to get along across faculty tracks, I think we can all learn to give the rights and responsibilities that will accord loyalty to the institution as an institution. But the hardest thing to do is to learn to value the contributions of someone else who is not doing exactly the same job we are in exactly the same way. And so, if we are indeed going to be a more flexible institution for the future, if we are going to be positively interdependent in these flexible roles yet maintain quality and loyalty, then we have got to be a whole lot smarter about understanding what is interesting in the work that our faculty does. And for me that is what the task we have before us is very much about. I hope we can begin this process today, and I know we will make progress as we continue working together to give new meaning to this great public research University.


You can always drop us a line: urecord@umich.edu.