Thursday, January 24, 2013 Eric R. Gilbertson, President Saginaw Valley State University
I really don’t know what an ordinary year would be like at SVSU – I can’t remember any year that was merely ordinary. But, by any test, 2013 is not going to be just another year.
This is the year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of our University’s founding, of course. But it’s also the year we prepare for our decennial accreditation visit from the Higher Learning Commission. And it’s also a year in which we begin implementation of yet another strategic plan – one that signals something of a new era in this University’s ongoing development. More on that in a moment.
But, again, it will not be just another ordinary year – whatever one of those might be like.
Before beginning today, I promised to make a “pitch” to you. Our students are once again conducting a campus-wide “Relay for Life” drive to raise funds for the American Cancer Society. The date is February 22-23, and they ask for your support. I ask too.
Last year our students raised some $50,000 for the “Relay;” they’d like to exceed that goal this year. Raising money for worthy causes has become an important part of the extra-curricular life on this campus. Last fall, the Student Association’s “Battle of the Valleys” – which has become a wonderful campus tradition – raised more than $30,000 for a program that provides recreational opportunities to disabled youngsters.
We can all be very proud of our students’ commitment and generosity. Please help them if you can.
Before moving on, I also want to mention that the guy behind the screen – and the consummate professional who has handled these visuals for me as well as for so many other University events for more than 25 years – is Brian Mudd. Brian is leaving SVSU next month to take a position in sunny South Florida.
No one has worked harder for SVSU, and I know he has helped and supported so many of you as well over the years. So. . . Brian please step out here and let us thank you. . . .
Let me begin with a few brief updates on the semester now underway. Winter semester enrollment is off slightly from earlier projections – down about 3.0% in headcount and 2.0% in credit hours. We had expected and have now seen a continued decline in graduate enrollments in the College of Education – state certification standards no longer require new teachers to complete graduate credits and so, not surprisingly, most have stopped doing so.
It is also clear now that we are beginning to see the effect of declining numbers of high school graduates in Michigan. We’ve seen the enrollment losses in the public schools of the State; almost every district has had to deal with closing school buildings and a loss of state capitation funding.
This year alone there were some 14% fewer high school juniors who took the ACT test. And it is projected that the numbers of high school graduates will drop by some 19% over the next decade. Projecting future enrollments will be a challenge. More on that later too.
For the first year in many, we have no major ongoing physical plant projects to spotlight. Our focus has now shifted to those smaller, less visible, but still important projects that preserve and improve the campus facilities we have. The third floor of Wickes Hall is one example, and the utility systems and energy conservation needs of that facility – one of the oldest on campus – are the next major project for attention.
After that, upgrades to the 24-year-old Ryder Center will be the next priority. These projects are needed and make good sense; and we are hoping for some help from our friends in the Legislature to make them possible.
Guided by consultants and with support and advice from many of you, we have recently completed a new iteration of our campus Master Plan – the first update of this important document in more than 15 years. While no master plan can or should dictate with precision each and every future physical change, our campus development has for the most part generally adhered to a succession of well-conceived plans over nearly five decades of growth.
The last campus Master Plan anticipated future development in the northwest quadrant of the core campus – now the site of the Regional Education Center and Health and Human Services Building. It also called for student housing to be developed at the south, along Pierce Road, and for the improvement of the Athletic Complex and the Davis Road corridor and entrance. You have seen these developments take shape.
The new Master Plan suggests the eventual expansion of Collings Drive to complete a loop around the central campus and provide an entrance from Freeland Road in the north. It also suggests the possible curtailment of College Drive in the center of campus, creating a much larger and pedestrian-friendly “green” core area.
On another interesting note, the first Master Plan for “Saginaw Valley College” anticipated that there might be partner educational organizations attracted to the campus, creating a multi-faceted educational center on this site. Subsequent plans, including the new one, also envision the potential for “University-related” partners to locate on the campus, most likely in those still-undeveloped portions of the Northwest Quadrant.
We may soon see the first such development by a partner organization. We are presently involved in serious discussions with Ming Chuan University concerning the lease of property on our campus for that institution’s North American facility. Ming Chuan is a Taiwanese University with institutional relationships throughout East Asia; it is also the first Asian university to receive full accreditation from an American regional accreditor – the Middle States Association.
The concept would be for Ming Chuan University to bring international students here to study in classes offered both by Ming Chuan as well as SVSU. This would, of course, create a strong relationship between the universities; it would also clearly support our goal of expanding and diversifying the enrollment of international students on our campus. Stay tuned on this one.
Again, please remember none of this means that anything must or will happen exactly this way - or happen at all, for that matter. But this planning exercise and this document will help us and others in the future think sensibly – and creatively – about campus development. And it does – and should – help prevent future campus development from proceeding randomly or as the product of only short-term thinking.
Work continues on our self-study for HLC accreditation, and several committees are busy assessing our programs and policies with applicable HLC standards. To be candid, I really don’t think anyone believes our accreditation is in serious jeopardy – we are a mature, stable and successful institution. But there are things we can do better – things we must do better – and this is an opportunity to confront weaknesses honestly and chart directions for improvement.
Please support the efforts of those serving on these committees and please also take advantage of the opportunities in the months ahead to share your ideas and suggestions as part of this process.
Planning also continues for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of SVSU’s founding, including the continued work on a fund-raising initiative: “Talent, Opportunity, Promise: The Campaign for SVSU.”
We will soon be announcing more early results from that Campaign, but suffice it to say that many of the university’s loyal friends have already been extraordinarily generous in their support. Especially gratifying has been the support of our own faculty and staff colleagues. At last count, some 212 faculty and staff have given or pledged approximately $310,000 for this Campaign.
I can’t thank you enough. When we ask others for their support, it means a great deal to say that our own colleagues contribute to the University’s work with their generosity as well as their daily work.
An important part of this Campaign’s goal will be to raise funds for student scholarships. We know first-hand and all too well that college costs place real burdens on our students and their families. Scholarships can mitigate some of this burden as well as make attendance here possible for many.
Our Campaign theme is, again, about talent and opportunity – and financial support for students serves both the goal of attracting talent to our campus and creating opportunities for that talent to emerge and thrive.
In preparing for this fund-raising campaign, we retained a consultant who surveyed friends and prospective donors – including many who have been strong supporters – about their views of SVSU. What surprised us was a finding that while almost everyone’s views were very positive, many of their impressions about the University were badly outdated.
It served as a reminder that we can never assume our friends and supporters know about our work, and we can never take their support or their loyalty for granted. This 50th anniversary provides a unique opportunity to communicate more effectively about the University with our publics. It is also all of our responsibility to represent our University to others and constantly explain our work and why it matters.
The anniversary celebration events are scheduled for the fall semester, so please look for these announcements and hold those dates on your calendars.
And no discussion about the “state” of things at the University would be complete without at least some reference to matters at the State level – in particular, things pending or soon to be pending in the Michigan Legislature.
We expect the Governor to present his proposed Executive Budget in a few weeks. And while Michigan’s recovery from the “Great Recession” continues to be slow, State revenues appear to be more stable; we can reasonably assume that those dark years of annual cuts to higher education appropriations are behind us – at least for the near term.
We do not yet know, of course, what the criteria might be for higher education appropriation allocations, but if they are similar to last year’s then we might expect some sort of modest increase in State funding for the coming year. If so, this would not only provide much needed support but also help mitigate any future increases in tuition. More on that to follow as more becomes known.
Over the past six months, a great deal of work has also gone into the preparation of a new Strategic Plan for SVSU. It is important to point out that the development of not just the physical campus but the overall institutional direction has been accomplished through a succession of plans.
Everything we have and are today began with a plan back in the 1960s – “Design for a College” – which set the stage. In the past 20 years, there have been a series of successor plans, each the product of work by a task force of faculty and staff, and each was eventually adopted by our governing board. Vitally important decisions – such as the expansion of student housing, efforts at internationalization, the creation of new degree programs, investments in technology, the setting of enrollment and financial goals – all were the result of this planning.
The growth and development of SVSU was not the result of random decision-making or rudderless drift. There have been, of course, unanticipated setbacks and occasional serendipitous developments. But, for the most part, SVSU is the creation of careful planning.
A lot of what passes for “strategic planning” in higher education is superficial and pretentious – often substituting what I call “big words and bad ideas” for substance. Some of it also reaches too far – seeking to appear lofty and visionary – and thus has little value in the real world in which a university lives and works with real people.
SVSU’s plans have attempted to balance hopes and needs with merciless realities – and to set goals and directives that serve a historic mission.
We hope this Plan, which will be presented to the Board of Control for its approval next month, accomplishes those purposes. A copy can be found on the website, there are some key details that deserve special mention here today.
In a chapter of this Plan concerning “Academic Improvement,” we will commission work with a consultant to explore the future of technology-based instruction at SVSU. In fact, this work is already underway.
To state the obvious, there is a lot going on out there including the development of the so-called “massive on-line open courses.” How will this affect our University and our programs? And what opportunities should we be pursuing – or avoiding?
We know, for example, that, especially at the graduate level, students are demanding more and more convenience in the delivery of instruction. And own graduate programs have been inching more and more into on-line or hybridized coursework.
It is now time for us to step back and chart a clear direction in that regard, and then to move ahead more boldly.
In a chapter on “Qualitative Distinctiveness” it is proposed that we continue to invest selectively in programs and services that lift the quality of opportunities for students – and especially for high-achieving students. It starts with this question: why should a very good student come to SVSU?
Earlier strategic plans led to the creation of initiatives like special advisory services for pre-medicine and pre-law students, the new Vitito Scholars Program in the College of Business, artists-in-residence in Music and scholarships in Theatre, the Foundation Scholars Program and several other new or improved programs.
This new Plan calls for the University to set aside each year – in good times and bad – a sum for investment in these qualitative initiatives that seek solely to answer that critical question.
This year, new investments are being made in the Moot Court and Model United Nations programs in the Political Science Department. And we have just announced the creation of a new “Saginaw Bay Environmental Science Institute” in the College of Science, Engineering and Technology. It will be headed by the Herbert H. Dow Chair in Chemistry, David Karpovich, and will involve several faculty colleagues whose research focuses on critical issues in this wonderful environmental laboratory just a few miles away.
Some of you may recall that we had once considered establishing a research station in the Bay, on Charity Island. That did not come to pass – at least for now – but in sober analysis we concluded that what was most needed to expand our research capabilities was not a physical site but better access to this body of water. Look for good things to come from this initiative – an initiative imagined and promoted by these colleagues.
We hope that the availability of investment funding will stimulate other departments to include creative proposals in their annual plans. Too often, to be candid, the annual departmental plans have been a rote exercise rather than a process of ambitious imagining.
I can’t stress this strongly enough: we need the best ideas of our colleagues, and the departments and offices which have taken seriously the responsibility to plan and create have been and will be supported.
There is another important opportunity addressed in this Plan. The Carnegie Foundation has created a special classification for institutions that have built service and research and learning connections with the communities around them as a key element in their institutional mission: “Community Engagement Institutions.” Clearly, SVSU is deeply engaged in the region around us: businesses and schools and hospitals and social service agencies are all important laboratories for our academic programs; student organizations volunteer in community-based organizations and raise money for worthy local causes.
We believe that obtaining this special designation from this prestigious national organization would both recognize and encourage these important relationships with the Great Lakes Bay Region. The next application cycle is in 2015, and work has already begun in preparation; much more work will be involved as this proceeds.
The “Enrollment Management” chapter of this Strategic Plan calls for the stabilization of our overall enrollments at current or close to current levels. It acknowledges the obvious challenges this will involve: the declining numbers of high schools graduates over the next decade; changes in teacher certification requirements; a continued lag in the retention rates for our entering first-year students.
But there are also opportunities in each of these challenges: to recruit a more diverse array of international and out-of-state students; to expand several of our graduate programs; and, most important, to improve retention and “student success” rates.
Everything we do will require even more focus on the whole issue of “student success.” That is a major theme throughout this entire Plan. To state the obvious, the strength of our enrollments has been utterly critical to everything else at our University. It will be even more critical to us in the future, and we should never take our past success for granted or assume it will continue without considerable effort and expense.
There are also chapters in this Strategic Plan on “Campus Culture” and “Physical and Technological Resources” and “University and Community Advancement.” Each of these chapters contains important ideas – and, sometimes, important reminders. And each deserves and will receive full attention in the months and years to come.
In fact, as with previous plans, the Board of Control and the campus community will receive annual reports on the progress, of lack thereof, made towards these goals.
This new Strategic Plan does not indicate an ending date. It may well serve the University for three to five years, but we leave open that question. Events and trends are too difficult to predict – we make no claim to prescience – and another planning process may well be needed either before or after some arbitrarily set date.
If there is an over-arching theme to this Strategic Plan, it might be this: we are now a mature University at what is likely to remain the overall size and character it has now achieved.
All of our previous strategic plans sought to control and direct growth; and growth has been a dominant theme in the identity of the University. This Plan now signals an important shift in SVSU’s direction and, to some extent, in its identity.
SVSU is and will be a mid-sized public university – seizing that as a differentiating feature and a virtue. SVSU is large enough to offer a broad range of academic programs, and it has more than a critical mass for a vibrant and vital campus life. And yet we believe it remains a human-scale organization, committed to relatively small class sizes and excellence in teaching. In fact, we promote SVSU almost more as a small college experience than a mass-production academic factory.
This Strategic Plan, then, focuses not on continued growth but accelerated improvement. We know that the world around us is not standing still and that if we do not improve we will inevitably fall behind. Some of you may scoff at this, but the late football coach at The Ohio State University, one of the institutions where my career took shape – OK, it was “Woody” Hayes – and he used to say this: “Nothing stands still – you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse.”
Growth for SVSU was easy – well, not easy, but dramatic and visible. Improvement is harder; and it usually comes in smaller, incremental steps. And those steps – thinking and re-thinking what we do, constantly looking for ways to do it better, adapting to new conditions and opportunities, learning and teaching and helping our students – those steps must be taken by all of us . . . every member of our University community.
And so we begin our University’s 50th year. I’ve already talked a lot about this and some of you are probably already tired of hearing it. But I’m fascinated with the power of human imagination.
A university . . . this University. . . is the product of human imagination. People first imagined this place when there was nothing there – or, nothing but a field and a historic moment. It is a great story!
This year we’ll talk some more about 1963 – a consequential year not just in this flat valley but also in national and international affairs. It was the year John F. Kennedy was assassinated; Martin Luther King spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and stirred congressional action on a landmark Civil Rights Bill; events in a far-off place – Indo-China – were a portent of things to come for America; and the first “Baby Boomers” started college – yours truly among them.
And here, a number of community leaders came together and asked why this region shouldn’t have a baccalaureate-granting institution in its midst.
You know, or should know some of their names. Harvey Randall “Rand” Wickes put up the first million dollars to help buy the land on which the campus now sits. Ted Doan (as in Doan Science Building) and his father – both CEOs of the Dow Chemical Company – were original incorporators of “Saginaw Valley College.” His sister, “Honey” Arbury, was an original member of the Board and served for its first two decades; she later brought the arts to this campus. Honey passed away just last month at the age of 91; we owe her so much.
Bill Groening (as in Groening Commons) was the first chair of the governing board; and he brought his lawyering skills to the drafting of policies and by-laws that still serve us well.
Charlie Curtiss (as in Curtiss Hall) was a youthful original board member who then served for some 32 years. Mel Zahnow (as in Zahnow Library) was also a long-time board member who oversaw the Wickes Foundation – this University’s largest benefactor.
And Bill Edwards led the fund-raising campaign that purchased this land, resulting in then-Governor Romney signing the legislation to adopt this as a state institution. Decades later, Bill contributed the funds to build a bell tower on this campus in honor of his wife, Julia Stacey Edwards.
There were legislators who made the development of this University the focus of their political careers: Jim O’Neill; Joel Gougeon; Jim Barcia; Mike Goshka; and others.
And there were the original and early faculty and staff – Sam Marble, the visionary, and our colleagues who came in those early years when there was not much here and not much to hope for. And then they stayed. We are much in debt to all of them and to so many others.
A university is, again, a uniquely human creation – this one didn’t just spring forth from a bountiful earth or drop from the sky. People, real people, made all this happen.
Every brick in every building . . .every book in the Library . . . every academic program and every lecture delivered in it . . . every service and every scholarship and every play called in a sports contest… all of those and more were the product of human imagination and effort. This University is, in a sense, a collective work of art.
And it not yet finished . . . it is never finished. A university, this University, is always about the business of creating and being created. Always . . . . And so the challenge . . . our challenge . . . is to continue this creative process – a process begun here a half-century ago and a process that will be continuing a half-century from now and beyond.
Honoring our history is important and this year will, again, provide us some special occasions to do that. But those students who enter this University care scant little – too little – about the toil and the creative thinking that came before them. They care mostly – perhaps only – about what comes next. And that is what we should care about too.
History – a story. There are many stories yet to be written – important stories, stories about an institution being created and about people’s lives being changed. And each of us has a chance to write them – every day here.
Let’s not squander those chances. Thank you - for listening today and for all you do every day.
Thursday, August 23, 2012 Eric R. Gilbertson, President Saginaw Valley State University
For our new folks, this annual occasion is one of the ways we cling tenaciously to the customs and habits and attitudes of the small college we once were. While growth and sprawl has challenged that self-concept, we still want to think of this as a human scale institution. And the tradition of coming together to welcome new colleagues and touch base again at the start of a new academic year is one of the ways we remind ourselves of who we are and things we want to hold changeless.
Welcome, and welcome back. I’ll try to keep things mercifully brief so as not to dampen what seems to be an upbeat mood today. But there are a few items I’d like to tell you about; and then I’ll make my traditional feeble attempt to send you off to face the year ahead with an unbound enthusiasm.
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In addition to all of these new folks joining us, there are a few recent administrative promotions I want to mention.
Ron Portwine has been promoted to Associate Vice President for Administration and Business Affairs; Laine Blasch has been appointed Special Assistant to the Executive Vice President for Administration and Business Affairs; and Lisa Gross has been promoted to Associate Director of Housing.
Josh Ode and Andrea Frederick have taken new positions as Assistant Deans, working with Judy Ruland in the Lange College of Health and Human Services. And Andy Chubb will join Deb Huntley in the Dean’s Office of the College of Science, Engineering & Technology.
Carol Zimmerman joins, our new Dean, Joni Boye-Beaman in the College of Arts and Behavioral Sciences Dean’s Office. Ann Coburn-Collins has accepted responsibility for leading the new Academic Achievement Center – this, in addition to her ongoing work with the support of our adjunct faculty. And Nick Wagner joins Jim Dwyer in the Enrollment Management Division as Special Assistant to the Vice President. Congratulations to all of them.
On a sad note, we remember the passing this past spring of our colleague, Steve Yanca, Professor of Social Work. He cared deeply about his profession, his program, his students, his Union and his community, Kochville Township. Steve was passionate about all these and other things, and we’ll miss him.
And on a happy note – a very happy note – our colleague, Mike Major, has returned safely from his tour of duty in Afghanistan. He was assigned to places and duties of considerable peril and earned, among other decorations, a Bronze Star and Combat Action Ribbon for his distinguished service. Mike . . . please stand so we can properly thank you for your service and welcome you home.
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There are fewer physical changes on the campus than in most previous years. The first floor Wickes Hall has been remodeled to create the new “Financial Services Center.” The staff working there have been cross-trained to handle most financial aid and other questions for students without having them run back and forth from Financial Aid to the Registrar to the Cashier’s offices. The notion is that if students are going to pay money we should make it as easy as possible for them.
We’ve re-paved some campus roads – long overdue repairs – and the Pierce Road project has now been largely finished – just in time before classes begin next week.
There are now a few additional classrooms in the first floor of the Regional Education Center. And the second floor of the Library has been remodeled to create the new “Academic Achievement Center,” bringing together the Math/Physics Center and the Writing Center with other tutoring and support services for students.
The Maintenance and Custodial staff have also worked hard to repair and upgrade facilities and grounds all around the campus and once again deserve our appreciation for their caring efforts.
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It will be a year of planning and preparation too. Many of you are involved in our self-study for the upcoming institution-wide accreditation review by the Higher Learning Commission; others will be involved as this process continues.
This past year our engineering programs were successfully re-accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), our Social Work program received re-accreditation from the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), and the Clinical Lab Sciences program, under the leadership of Kay Castillo, received a perfect score on their inaugural accreditation attempt.
Congratulations to colleagues in those programs for their good work.
And this year, our colleagues in the College of Business and Management will be visited by the Association for the Advancement of Colleges and Schools of Business (AACSB). That accreditation review team will be on campus this October.
On this same theme of preparation and planning, this past summer a Task Force has been at work revising and updating the University’s strategic plan. A draft will be presented for comment by the entire campus community at a series of public forums. The advice and support of everyone is needed as we chart directions for the continued development and improvement of our institution.
The University has grown and changed over the years through careful planning. What we have planned has generally come to pass – sometimes sooner and sometimes later, but we have almost always done what we planned to do. This is not just some idle exercise – it does matter, and matters a great deal.
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We can look forward to a lively cultural and recreational life on campus again this year. Please take a good look at the new schedule of plays and concerts and lectures that is now available. Access to these events are among the perks of belonging to a University Community, so please do take advantage of these opportunities.
And our Cardinals are preparing for successful seasons on the fields and in the arenas of our Athletic Department. They’re fun to watch, these students, and they greatly appreciate the support of their faculty and staff members as they represent our University and do what they love doing.
Our coaches have tough jobs. Most of us don’t have to face an unforgiving scoreboard at the end of a day or a won-lost record at the end of a semester. Good luck to our coaches and our kids this year.
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As I hope all of you know, we are also approaching the Fiftieth Anniversary of the founding of Saginaw Valley State University. Many of you have suffered through my tedious narrations about this history, and you can expect to hear more of the same in the months ahead.
Fifty is just another number, and 2013 will only be another year, I suppose. On the other hand, it does provide an opportunity to celebrate – and perhaps more. We are planning parties, of course, but we are also planning to focus attention on what SVSU has become and how all this came to be…and what it means and might yet mean in the future.
There will be a major initiative to communicate with our publics – and among ourselves – about the University and its value to our State and Region and, most important, its students and graduates. We do this not to trumpet our conceits or to satisfy our vanities, but to share our pride and express our appreciation for those who created and sustained the opportunities for all of us here.
And…not surprisingly…we will also be using this occasion to seek new and renewed support from our publics – and from ourselves – for our University’s ongoing work. A major fund-raising campaign is already underway, and there have been a number of very significant gifts received from or pledged by longstanding friends of the University. In January of 2013, we will launch a public phase of this campaign in which we will solicit the support of alumni and others.
And here’s the pitch you’ve probably seen coming…we’ll also be asking faculty and staff and our various boards to express their support for this work as well. We don’t and won’t pressure anyone to contribute to this cause, but many of our colleagues have been generous to SVSU’s fund-raising efforts in the past and we hope you will support this special effort in the months ahead.
Private gifts have been utterly essential and instrumental in the development of our University over its history. In fact, SVSU began with a fund-raising campaign to purchase the land on which our campus is built. Since that time, private gifts have endowed chairs and fellowship programs, sponsored lectures and concerts, built buildings and created literally hundreds of scholarships for literally thousands of students.
As we go to prospective donors from the private sector in our anniversary year, it will be important to demonstrate that those of us who are closest to the University – our faculty and staff and boards – are also willing to support it. A committee of colleagues will be leading this on-campus effort. My thanks to them for their leadership in this effort.
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Finally, it appears that once again we will have students here for our tender care and tutelage – and at times for our amusement. It’s difficult to predict the precise number who will survive final registration dates, but we expect about the same total – give or take a few – as last fall. As we’ve reported before, it is our goal to flatten overall enrollments at about this 10,500-11,000 student level for the next several years. Given the declining numbers of high school graduates in Michigan this is not the time to push for additional growth.
There will likely be slightly fewer new freshpersons and some continuing decline in the number of College of Education graduate students. On the other hand, we expect some growth in the numbers of returning undergraduate students and some growth in the numbers of international students.
I would note too that a number of students who might otherwise have returned this year were effected – as we predicted – by changed federal policies denying continuing financial aid to those who failed to meet “Satisfactory Academic Progress” – or, or more specifically in our case, a 2.0 GPA. We should warn freshmen again that neglecting to take academic responsibilities seriously can have devastating financial consequences for them and their families.
We’ll report the final results when our students are all counted, but at this point we can predict that overall enrollments will remain solid. A few up or down in student headcount, and fairly flat in total credit hours taken.
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Long ago and on a campus far away, I was once a reluctant and unwitting participant in a small seminar about how to improve our college-level teaching. My enthusiasm for the exercise was stressed further when our “facilitator,” a colleague from the Psychology Department, instructed all of us sitting around the table to close our eyes and allow our imaginations to roam in response to his suggestions.
My first reaction was, of course, “oh no, this is some sort of a touch-feely thing.” And. . . just so you know. . . I’m, really not much of a touchy-feely kind of guy. But, under the duress of weighty peer pressure, I reluctantly complied. Then, in hushed tones, our facilitator asked that we all try to imagine ourselves as we were in the first week of our freshman year in college. How did we look. . . what were we wearing. . . what were we thinking about. . . what were we worrying about? It was a revealing and a poignant exercise.
In the silent honesty of the moment we remembered our scrawny and insecure selves – the moments came back slowly, then in a flood tide. When we compared notes – with candor and promises of strict confidentially – we were stunned. We remembered our self-consciousness, our sense of awkwardness, our painful and desperate attempts to appear blasé and sophisticated. (29) And what we were most concerned about back then were things like our wardrobes and complexions – praying earnestly that these would not disadvantage us in the pursuit of the social and romantic adventures we had come to college in hope of finding.
Scant few of the things we were thinking and worrying about had any relationship with a fascination for learning or the pursuit of academic excellence. And. . . most important. . . our sage facilitator admonished us. . . those were largely the things that would be most on the minds of those students we would greet in our classes the next week.
We had, of course, prepared scintillating opening lectures, imaginatively conceived assignments and classroom exercises, intriguing and irresistible tactics to share our own enthusiasm with our subject matter with eager young minds. But they were like us – or like we had been – those years ago. And it would be helpful to keep that in mind, we concluded, as we developed strategies for drawing them into our subjects and classes and academic culture.
I tell you all this because there are serious questions being raised these days in the public arena about how we should go about our work and what value we offer – particularly in what we are about to begin doing here again, the social context of face-to-face interaction in our classrooms and offices, and extra-curricular functions and playing fields. Can’t we do it all in three years – and more cheaply? Why can’t we “deliver” all this in ways that more efficiently prepare these students for immediate economic value to their employers?
The idea du jour is just to let them stay home and tune in to free, on-line courses that are being packaged and delivered by world-class scholars from elite institutions – the so called “massive on-line open courses” that some think will make what we do here ultimately obsolete. I think, obviously, that they’re wrong. And I can’t help thinking that the enthusiasts for this approach just haven’t looked a real-life freshman in the eye in a very long time – or that this is really what they’d want for their own sons and daughters.
Of course, there are wonderful opportunities we might and perhaps should seize from on-line content; and of course, we should move students more quickly to degree completion. But there’s more to it than that – much more. If what we do here does have value – and it does – it is because those fragile freshman. . . and sophomoric sophomores. . . and even those sophisticated seniors and grad students need, and deserve, more than rote instruction in academic content. They need social context and humane motivation and intellectual modeling. They need, and deserve, advice and care and challenging demands. They also need and deserve respect.
So. . . in a quiet moment let your imaginations roam back to your first encounter with “higher” education. Picture yourselves – do not picture me, by the way – and remember what, and who, reached and touched and started you off on the path that eventually led you to a career in this “business.” Then let’s come to work next week and be that person for our students too.
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So . . .the new class rosters are being assembled, the parking lots are beginning to fill up, last minute preparations for a fresh new semester and year are frantically underway, and there is just a tinge of color beginning to appear in the leaves above and around us. The inexorable forces of nature and the academic calendar dictate that a somnolent summer is over and it’s time to get back to work – and to play as well.
These students of ours: they’re moving into campus housing; lining up to buy textbooks and adding and dropping our classes; planning parties and uttering those first grumbling complaints of the new year about too few easy parking places and too many hard academic requirements.
So before we get to work exciting them with a love of learning, let’s have our own party tonight, right outside. And then, of course, next week we’ll go out there and “do it to them before they do it to us!” And people. . . be careful out there. Thank you.
Thursday, January 12, 2012 Eric R. Gilbertson, President Saginaw Valley State University
SVSU President Eric R. Gilbertson delivered the keynote address to the class of the Great Lakes Bay Regional Leadership Institute on Thursday, January 12:
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When I moved here some twenty-two years ago, I read and thought and tried to understand how this place had come to be what it was. Finally, I concluded that it was mostly the product of awesome geophysical forces.
About fifteen thousand years ago (give or take a millennium or two) a massive glacier plowed down from the north to cover most of North America and then receded, leaving in its wake the Great Lakes. When water eventually settled into what is now the approximate shoreline of Lake Huron – remember that where we are now was also once under water - it left in this place, about 43 degrees north latitude, 83 degrees west longitude, the “Saginaw Valley”.
To be pitilessly candid, it’s actually not a valley at all – there are no discernible walls on either side. It’s technically just a drainage basin - but that sounds so terribly inelegant, not the sort of thing you’d want to name a great university after. So the Saginaw Valley it became.
What the glacier also left behind was an environment agreeable to forestation, and so developed the great white pine forests. Rivers provided for the easy movement of timber, and so came about the lumber industry and era here in this flat valley.
As luck would have it, the glacier also deposited brine beneath the soil of what is now Midland. And those brine deposits brought a young Herbert Dow here from Cleveland about a century ago to perfect his chemical processes and to create what is now the major employer and economic driver in this Region.
And there was yet even more terrestrial bounty from our earth. The glacier also left iron ore deposits to the north of the lakes and coal to the south. Those assets, together with the prospect of efficient transportation via the waterways, made southern Michigan a congenial site for the development of an auto industry – an industry which then sprawled north from Detroit to Pontiac and Flint and on to Saginaw and Bay City.
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Humans, impelled by the economic and demographic forces which resulted from these natural phenomena, came next. First the French, then the Germans, then the Poles and then other Europeans came. (Native Americans were simply pushed aside for a time). In the early and mid-twentieth century, African Americans arrived as part of a great migration from the American South. Later, Hispanics migrated to work in the fertile fields of this former lakebed, and many stayed to work in the auto plants.
More recently, immigrants from East and South Asia and the Middle East have come to call this their home too – often lending their talents to the businesses and hospitals and universities of what we now are pleased to call “The Great Lakes Bay Region.”
Each of these ethnic groups seemed to announce their arrival and declare this place their home by erecting their own houses of worship. Think about the historic mainline churches in our cities - Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopalian. And there are the great Roman Catholic houses of worship - St. Mary’s and Holy Family in Saginaw, and St. Stanislaus Kostka in Bay City. African Americans centered their lives and communities around a host of Baptist, Pentecostal and African Methodist Episcopal Churches.
And now we have an Islamic Center in our midst, and soon perhaps a Hindu Temple. These neighbors too have declared this to be their home.
What could be more thoroughly and wonderfully American than that?
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So here we are, gathered together in our shared home community. And, as individuals, we are here by reason of choice. All of us chose either to come here or to stay; we all had options.
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So what happens next?
If I am correct that our history was created largely by impersonal forces of nature, then I would also suggest that our future will be shaped more by human factors: the imagination, talents and energies of people – including us, and especially you.
There appears no new glacier in sight that might shove things around and rearrange the distribution of natural resources. We pretty much have what we’re going to have.
We’re not, of course, in a topographically gorgeous place; we’re a bit out of the way from heavily trafficked highways and rail lines; and we do have cold winters. But we don’t suffer from droughts or hurricanes; we’re not located along a tectonic fault line (i.e., not much threat of major earthquakes or tsunamis); and we are in the middle of the world’s largest reservoir of fresh water. So, all things considered, we haven’t exactly gotten a raw deal from Mother Nature.
We have been alternately buoyed and buffeted by the forces of larger economic trends: the booms of the early auto years and the busts that occasionally followed; the migration of manufacturing to lower-cost environments in other states and other nations; the shifting of population densities to the south and west; and so on.
But if we understand these things now, there might at least be fewer inconvenient surprises ahead. We can also be pretty sure no one and nothing from some distant seat of government is likely to arrive in a dramatic fashion to save us from our sundry despairs. We have, from time-to-time, entertained the cheerful notion that a wise and beneficent government would choose our Region as the object of its largesse. Alas, such daydreams were – and always are – ultimately a cruel self-deception.
But in the final analysis the most critical factor in what happens next is us. We’re on our own and we alone will decide what will happen in our moment in time, here in our chosen hometown.
It is all about our imagination, our talents, and those we can attract and develop to help us, and about our combined energies.
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It starts with imagination. Everything starts with imagination.
There are several monuments to human imagination around us. Brine deposits may have brought Herbert Dow to Midland, but it was his imagination and those of a succession of CEOs and scientists who followed that created and developed The Dow Chemical Company.
Think about Frankenmuth! Who but a whimsical optimist could have looked at that flat farmland and thought, “Wow, maybe if we construct Bavarian-style buildings with a glockenspiel – and cook up lots of chickens – people will flock here to eat and buy Christmas ornaments! And then some day, more people will bring their kids to stay overnight and splash around indoors!”
But guess what?
And it took the combined imaginations of John Bintz and then Mike Bierlein to build a ski hill and golf resort from an apple orchard.
And so on and so forth.
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The next factor in our future is talent – what our friends at Dow call “the human element.” That comes from good education - you expected me to say that, and I’ll say more a bit later. But it also comes from welcoming into this community the talents of our immigrant friends.
Dow Chemical leaders will echo what Governor Snyder also said recently: we need human talent - creativity and expertise - for Michigan to prosper. We do need to develop the talents of our youth, but we also need to attract the talents of those who come from abroad to American universities and medical centers and who wish to stay and join our adventures here.
Dow is a major importer of international talent; our local health care institutions are critically reliant upon professionals born elsewhere, and a large share of the doctoral-level faculty SVSU has hired in the past decade were also foreign-born.
In a strange perversion of language, the notion of “tolerance” has somehow seemingly been elevated into a high virtue. But we must not merely be “tolerant” of those who may in some ways differ; we need to embrace them and call them neighbors and friends as well as colleagues and co-workers. We also need to call them fellow Americans.
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The other element needed for any preferred future we might imagine is, of course, the investment of human energy and effort – and some measure of confidence and courage.
The notion of a regional organization like the Great Lakes Bay Regional Alliance is, obviously, to build on the combined imagination and talent and energy of our larger community. Each of our respective towns has its own conceits and insecurities, of course. And historic mistrust and suspicion have too often divided the Region into isolated pockets. But this Great Lakes Bay Regional Alliance was conceived in the conviction that together we can create things and improve things that no one of these smaller communities could do, or do as well, alone.
And there is historic evidence to support that (almost) self-evident proposition.
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Which leads me to mentioning, albeit briefly, SVSU. I do this not just because I am its underpaid spokesman, but because it – along with our sister institution, Delta College – is a monument to the efficacy of regional cooperation in this drainage basin.
The University originated in the imagination of several local leaders some half century ago. It was a creature of local initiative – not something dreamed up for us in Washington or Lansing. Folks from what was then called the “Tri-Cities” came together to create an institution that would mature into what it is today.
Today, of course, it annually serves nearly eleven thousand students, drawing more than sixty percent of them from outside our immediate Region. In fact, literally hundreds of them also come from places as distant and different as Saudi Arabia and the People’s Republic of China. They come here with their talents and their money and their enthusiasms - some of them wholesome – and make this a much more interesting and far more promising place.
We hope that many of them will also stay and live and work here in our Region – like some 20,000 other SVSU graduates have.
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But back to history . . . .
From that audacious initial idea came an effort by some 300 leaders from Saginaw, Bay and Midland to raise more than $4.2 million to purchase the land upon which SVSU now sits. (A commensurate financial effort today would be about $28 million). And then a bi-partisan regional delegation worked to pass legislation making this a “state” college, later university.
Over the years and decades, combined bi-partisan political clout also won funding and buildings for the fledgling institution. Political leaders from the various corners of the larger Region took the lead at critical times and made their University the State’s most important investment in this Region. Jim O’Neill and Jerry Hart and then Jon Cisky and Mike Goshka of Saginaw all led efforts to create vital facilities on the campus. Jim Barcia and Joel Gougeon from Bay did likewise. And Dave Camp and Tony Stamas and others from Midland played important roles in several significant initiatives.
All of these efforts had – and could not have succeeded without – focused, committed and staunchly bipartisan regional political support.
By the way, don’t disdain politics or think for a moment that politics doesn’t matter. In the 5th Century B.C., Pericles said something like this: “Just because you do not take an interest in politics does not mean politics will not take an interest in you.”
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Similarly, the University could not have grown and matured without the philanthropic support of the entire Great Lakes Bay Region. Names like Wickes and Arbury and Doan and Curtiss now designate campus buildings; names like Gerstacker and Field and Kantzler and Miller and Braun and Dow – and literally hundreds of others – are associated with endowed chairs and scholarships and programs for students, all of which enrich the intellectual capital of the University – and the Region as well.
And the entire Great Lakes Bay Region has always been critical to the most important challenge facing the University - attracting more and better talent. We know how to “sell” this as a place to make a living and a life. Within a thirty-mile radius from the campus someone can choose from the widest variety of homes: from the charms of Frankenmuth to the sprawling suburban neighborhoods of Saginaw Township and Midland to waterfront condos in Bay City to . . . well, you get the idea.
And it’s only a short drive from our doors to urban centers or to the hills and lakes of our storied “Up North.”
But remember that working together toward "regionalism" does not mean that we should seek to homogenize our respective communities. Each of their unique qualities and features and identities adds to the rich diversity of the Region - much as the various neighborhoods in New York come together to create the splendid mosaic of that great city.
We too often define ourselves by what we’re not. And we’re clearly not Las Vegas. But what we are is a good place for people with settled values and a settled lifestyle to come and make a life.
Cindy and I thought so, and it certainly has been for us.
I hope for you too.
* * *
There are, again, other successes that could only have happened by drawing on the talents and imaginations and energies of the larger Region. Delta College is one, of course, and MBS International Airport, but also minor league baseball, and the Dow Events Center and the Midland Center for the Arts and the Temple Theater, and the Bay City riverfront festivals.
Bay Cityans and Saginawians add to a market that makes the Dow Diamond come alive summer evenings with the Great Lakes Loons. And from Midland, Dow’s support for the Events Center in Saginaw brings hockey and musical programs to the Region for all of us.
Midland’s support helped make the Dow Bay Area Family Y project a reality; and on the drawing board are plans for Saginaw developers to work with Bay City on the development of Uptown at River’s Edge.
Clearly, we can do things together that none of our towns could do alone. And that was the genesis of the Great Lakes Bay Regional Alliance – and that is why this leadership class and those who have preceded you in this program are so important to the future of our Region.
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So what next? Again, it probably won’t be determined by the forces of nature. And if we regard ourselves only as helpless and hapless spectators to merciless economic or political forces beyond our control, then it really won’t be determined by us either.
So what’s it going to be? What can be created or improved if we have the imagination and the talent and the energy – oh yes, and the will and the courage – that others had in their historic leadership moments?
Will this be an unfortunate or merely inconsequential time in our Region’s history, or will we work together – paraphrasing the traditional American ethic – to “leave this land better than we found it.”
There is a wonderful line from Emerson: “This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.”
It is, or soon will be, your time. Being part of this class is a good start. I can’t wait to see what you’ll do next.