The University Record, October 7, 1998
By Jane R. Elgass
Discussing the challenges facing the University from her perspective as provost, Nancy Cantor last week described the three contexts or values from which she views the issues that daily cross her desk.
Cantor, who noted that the U-M plays an important role in shaping society's values, was the second speaker in the 1998 Lectures at Rackham series on American Values, sponsored by the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies.
Great public research university
Cantor stated that the conjoining of the words "great public research university" are what enable the U-M "to have an enormous impact on American values and society."
This impact goes well beyond the traditional concept of a university as a place where knowledge is created and transmitted. "A place like Michigan, which has an historical imperative to be inclusive and wide-ranging, does more than that," she said. As institutions, universities really are "grand societal experiments" in which we do things for society that it would like to do but cannot.
Universities, she said, "have the luxury to play with crossing boundaries and building new, different communities, and Michigan has always played that role." We take people in at a time in their lives when they are leaving a community that is very well defined and "bump them against each other to create a new community and smaller subcommunities."
This role requires the University to have relatively permeable boundaries, Cantor explained. This is a place where individuals can move back and forth between the "ivory tower" and greater society, she said, citing as an example the dialogue developing on a campus master plan.
We have boundaries and are "our own campus, but we are not isolated. We have a responsibility to the greater community. We are always looking out to define ourselves with a sense of responsibility to others," she said.
The U-M is at once a private institution, as it has its own community, as well as a public institution, whose ultimate tie to society is what it can do for the broader social communities, Cantor said.
Central and decentralized community
The U-M values layers of community. It is one university, but has nested layers of communities within, the provost said. One of the challenges we face is determining how we "preserve engagement in the University as a whole while also preserving the layers."
Cantor said that the budget model she developed is one of the ways in which she confronts this challenge. The units have their own resources, which they can use as they see fit, but "they all have a common fiscal fate." There are units that are vital to the University that cannot be self-supporting-what Cantor calls public goods-so others must in some way share in their support.
These public goods include visible institutions such as the libraries, museums, Hill Auditorium and the Stadium, as well as less obvious ones-the transportation system, safety, student financial aid, a civil community in which the rights of all are respected-that all combine to create the whole of the University. Maintaining and enhancing the public goods requires sacrifices from all parts of the University.
The sense of community also requires that we not pit faculty and staff against one another, Cantor noted. "We have a right and a responsibility as a University as a whole to think about civil communities, climate and collaboration, the role people play, the ways we transmit a sense of respect and belongingness. This is not easy to do when we are constantly being told to cut costs and be more efficient.
"For example, I feel very acutely as we try to be responsible as an institution and hold down the costs of central administrative staff that we run the very grave risk of defining people who are cirtical as public goods-that is, our staff-as somehow not belonging as much," Cantor said. Some groups, such as faculty and students, may be perceived as having "favored nation" status. "We cannot afford that kind of pulling apart," the provost said, "and yet it is certainly the case that we have to face the calls for efficiency that are coming to us."
Social and personality psychology
Cantor's background in psychology offers the third way-that of social construct-in she which views "what we are doing in being a societal experiment and in building a multi-layered community."
Humans, she noted, alternatively experience the same event in the "construct of the moment," she said, which has great value in a university.
We value what we know, what is familiar, and devalue what we don't know, Cantor said. This can result in a narrowing of the way in which we construe ourselves in the social world, using a single set of values to define the ways in which we experience things.
Diversity is a critical value of the U-M and experiencing that diversity challenges automatic constructs. "Our undergraduates are able to stretch beyond their intellectual comfort zone, and that is one of the special things a great research university has to offer," Cantor said. "This is at the core of why we need to cherish interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity."
Institutionally, we create a structure, a community that forces exploration, that allows individuals to reach beyond their comfort zones, that allows "all the mixing you can think of," Cantor said.
This, at the same time, produces an irony. "Exploration rarely comes without a sense of place and security." A toddler, for instance, rarely ranges beyond the security of a caregiver unless there is a sense of security.
Cantor was quick to point out that this mixing, reaching beyond comfortable boundaries, is not easy. "Exploration is hard. It is tension-provoking. Our most fundamental problem is how we get together and learn from one another. This is hard because it's new. It's uncharted territory. There are no rules for stretching beyond boundaries."