Convocation 2010

Our Argument, Our Story, Our Future

Convocation Address

August 19, 2010

             Good afternoon.  And welcome to the start of the new academic year.

             As befitting the title of my remarks this year, the images greeting you on the screen behind me are all about “our argument, our story, our future.”  So, please enjoy them in that context.  The same is true with the images that will conclude today’s convocation.

            I am pleased to begin our program with some introductions and a few words from some of our friends and colleagues.

  Introduce advisory board members, et al.

  • Introduce other speakers.

             So, again, welcome to the start of the new academic year.  And, yes, in many respects, it feels like we haven’t quite left the old one.  Yet, we have, and I’ll get to that shortly.  But, we are, once again, in all too familiar territory:

  lots of folks in Sacramento proclaiming their support for higher education, yet impasse in the legislature regarding a state budget that would prove that support;

  • gratifying high performance by our students as they continue to improve their degree completion rates, yet high anxiety among them, too, regarding rising fees, the availability of classes, and their prospects after graduation;
  • strong demand from an increasingly diverse population of higher education seekers in our state, yet deep worry among them about access and affordability (incidentally, applications to Chico State increased nearly 7% for this year, underscoring the demand and hope which are out there);
  • a small, but mighty band of new faculty and staff in our ranks;
  • uncertainty among all of us about the pace and direction of recovery from the deep trough we’ve been in for the most part of a decade;
  • yet, as just announced this week, continued high regard among our peers as reflected in the latest US News & World Report rankings and another listing among the top 100 public colleges and universities in the country by Forbes magazine.

             In sum, we are still confronting the triple whammy of the past decade: General Fund support which has decreased almost 30%; FTES enrollments which have increased about 25%; and student fees which have risen over 100%.

            And, in sum, we are doing a lot more than simply muddling through, or, to cite my favorite book title about the ‘60s, more than “smiling through the apocalypse.”

            If I were to wax biblical, this would perhaps be the time to talk about walking through the valley of the shadow of furloughs.  But our aim is not merely to survive that passage; it is to ensure that we do not tread it again.

             If I were to sound cynical, this would be the time to rail against an era of political flimflam in our state which offers noise without harmony, debate without dialogue, a future without memory, and promises without commitment.

            But I think we’ve been hoodwinked enough by such antics.  And one of the most important developments of the past year has been the efforts of folks on this campus and throughout the CSU to call the bluff on all those who would attempt to shift blame and attention away from their own failure to remember and protect the promise of higher education in California.

            Make no mistake about it, public higher education in our state, and elsewhere, has not been without fault in drawing criticism and doubt about how we have gone about our work.  We have often put on arrogant airs and demanded that resources should flow to us freely and unquestionably because, after all, isn’t our work undeniably noble and intrinsically worthy?

            We have too long pretended that no one cares or listens to governors, legislators, the press, and other critics when they blast higher education for being bloated, wasteful, unaccountable, and even irrelevant. 

             We have too often sat quietly on the islands of our campuses as these folks, and even some in our own ranks, have said that a university education is a privilege for a few, not a possibility for the many, and access should be reserved for the truly worthy or the very wealthy.

             Or have argued for the privatization of public higher education through higher student fees.

            Or have proclaimed that higher education should concentrate on workforce development and downsize, if not completely eliminate, “non-essential” programs, which allegedly do not contribute directly to meeting critical workforce needs.

            And, of course, there are those who cling to the old myth about an inherent conflict between liberal and professional education that argues, especially in an economic crisis as deep as the one in which we’ve been, that our focus should be on immediate recovery and a practical curriculum, not the abstract and potential benefits of a liberal education. 

            Well, there are answers to each of these criticisms.  And they are here at Chico State.

             These answers are manifest both in the manner of our response and the substance of it.

             Building on the Alliance for the CSU, which the CFA, the CSUEU, and other CSU unions helped form two years ago, we witnessed last March the largest campus rally in the system when 3000 members of our campus and local community gathered in the Student Services Center plaza for a day of action and affirmation.

             This rally was organized by our students, the leadership principally coming from the Cross Cultural Leadership Center, the Associated Students, and MECha.

             They set out to accomplish two goals.  First, to stage an event distinct in tone and purpose from the many rallies and protests around the state and nation which had turned ugly with vandalism, building break-ins, and police intervention; and, second, both to inform those who attended about the dire conditions facing public higher education in California and to enlist them in activities and advocacy beyond the rally to effect public policy and change the present course.

             Our Day of Action Rally was an impressive and moving affirmation of why our students love this University and how they rouse to its defense and values.

             And let me tell you:  it made a difference.  For never in the eighteen years I have been in the CSU have I found more understanding of the case for higher education expressed in Sacramento and beyond.  That’s the good news.

             The bad news is that this understanding has yet to materialize into the bipartisan action we seek and need, although there are encouraging signs in the governor’s budget proposal, the recommendations of the legislature’s conference committee on the budget, and through such actions as Senator Jim Nielsen’s key support for the Taylor II project, that is, the new Arts and Humanities building, which saved it from being dropped from the state-funded capital projects list for the CSU this year.

              But understanding must inform action, so we press on.

             We press on with our case:

  To restore the vision of the Master Plan and its promise of access, affordability, and quality;

  • To champion a future of hope and reward through higher education, rather than one of fear and acrimony through thicker prison walls and higher border fences;
  • To hold our public officials accountable to an electorate which deeply values the promise of higher education and expects their representatives to secure it;
  • To infuse public policy on higher education with a sense of social justice and moral responsibility;
  • To emphasize that higher education is an investment for the public good, not just a privileged experience for the benefit of a few individuals;
  • To argue that the foundation for the knowledge-based economy and strong social fabric of the 21st century is higher education.

             Yes, we press on with our case.  And just as importantly, perhaps even more so, we press on with our example.

             For, you see, case making is not just noise, even eloquent noise.  It needs a focus on what we stand for, not just on what we rail against.  It demands action driven by the values we foster:  democratic engagement, environmental stewardship, altruism, justice, service, civility and community.  It requires that we welcome and that we pass the test of practicing what we preach.

             Yes, we can articulate a compelling case, but we have to demonstrate a convincing one.  And let me count the ways:  CAVE, CLIC, Up til Dawn, the Town Hall meetings and numerous other forms of civic engagement, the AS sustainability program and the campus green building commitment (most recently affirmed with the LEED gold status earned by the Wildcat Recreation Center), voter registration drives, school nutrition programs, veterans services, applied research in agriculture and engineering, life-long learning programs, teacher education…

             Each of these, all of these, are worthy of acknowledgment, because each of these, all of these, provide a powerful lens with which to observe our best traits and to offer important lessons to guide our dedication to them.

             But I want to focus the rest of my address today on another demonstration of whom we are and why we matter.   And that begins with a brief video.  So sit back and marvel at what our students, their faculty, and our many community partners achieved last January and I’ll be back right after this to introduce a few stars of this story and to talk about the lessons from the Catalyst Blitz Build, a project which saw the erection of two 840 sq. ft. houses in nine days – nine days of mostly pouring rain – to serve as transitional living homes for victims of domestic violence.

             First of all, the Blitz Build had context.  In what has become a powerful annual tradition, principally led by the students, faculty, and alumni of the Construction Management Department, we have witnessed an impressive demonstration of community service.  It started in 2006 when a Chico State team went to New Orleans to help with recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina.  They returned to New Orleans for two more years, with the number of participants increasing each time.  In January, 2009, our students turned their attention and efforts closer to home, helping the nearby Sierra foothills community of Concow recover after the devastating fires of summer, 2008, by building more than a dozen storage sheds for the victims of those fires.  For some folks up there, these sheds were their only refuge for awhile.

             Yes, context is important, because it provides perspective and raises expectations for on-going engagement.

             Second, the Blitz Build had partners.  Besides nearly 200 students and their faculty, the effort was a partnership of Catalyst Domestic Violence Services, the city of Chico, the local construction industry, and the local community at large.  These folks were noted at the conclusion of the video and a number of them are here with us today.  I’d like to introduce them and to ask them to stand so that we can acknowledge all of them with an appreciative round of applause.

  Students and faculty:  Jim O’Bannon and David Shirah.

  • The director of the Catalyst center, Anastacia Snyder.
  • Key members of an Industry Advisory Board headed by Gage Chrysler of Modern Building; Pat Conroy of Conroy Construction; and Howard Slater of Slater and Son, who provided invaluable guidance for the project.
  • Mayor Ann Schwab, City Manager Dave Burkland, and the Chico Redevelopment Agency, which has committed $550,000 for the full build-out of the Catalyst facility.  Ann and David particularly encouraged city agencies and officials to keep the project on schedule with their technical assistance.
  • Contributors of financial assistance and food and materials from all corners of our community, such as the Chico Association of Realtors, the Earl Foor Foundation, Cleanrite-Buildrite, and the Chico Noon Rotary Club.

             Thank you, all of you, for this great team effort, this inspiring community achievement.

             Yes, partners matter, because they sustain and strengthen us, and raise expectations about the grand things we can accomplish together.

             Third, the Blitz Build exemplified the very best characteristics of teaching excellence.  Without a doubt, the primary requisites for teaching excellence are command of discipline and the ability to transmit knowledge effectively.  But the manner of that demonstration and transmission hinges on certain personal attributes in order to be truly distinguished. 

             These personal qualities include kindness, decency and civility, personal integrity and intellectual honesty, and a lack of pretentiousness.  These human qualities teach, not with words, but with the force of personal example and they stand for largeness of the human spirit. They reflect a faculty who are with and for their students every step of their learning journeys, who always give students credit for their efforts, and who always demonstrate confidence in their students.

             These are the very qualities we recognize in the faculty and staff whom we honor every year for outstanding teaching, advising, professional achievement, and service, as we did with these colleagues in 2010.  I encourage the new folks who are joining us this year to take note of whom we honor and why, to seek out these extraordinary people, and, especially, to note that we work here as much on developing habits of the heart as we do the skills of a discipline.

             Yes, example matters, because it underscores our aspirations and creates high expectations for ourselves and our students.

             Fourth, the Blitz Build emphasized a simple truism here at Chico State:  equip our students with skills and understanding, support them with good advice and steady encouragement – and then get out of their way.

             Trust is the foundation for this to happen.  Our students do not need to be reminded of how much we know.  This is not about our self-importance.   It is about inspiring self-trust and self-confidence in them.  It is about encouraging them to anticipate that the best is yet to come and that they can travel to far-away horizons of their own choosing.

             The Blitz Build succeeded because our faculty trusted the energies and abilities of our students and because our students trusted the encouragement and confidence of their faculty.  It doesn’t get any better than that.

             Yes, trust matters, because life is impossible without it and its companion, hope. 

             Trust matters because it is the essence of the compact that exists between higher education and the people of our state and nation.  And this brings me back to where these remarks began:  our case and how to make it.  And, perhaps, the greatest lesson of the Blitz Build – and the Gateway Science Museum, and our educational center in Redding, and our commitment to community college transfers in our service area, and our rural nursing program, and our relationship with the Mechoopda, and our outreach to the Coachella Valley, and our stewardship of the Big Chico Creek Reserves, and scores of other engagements of hope and promise – yes, perhaps, the greatest lesson, is partnership in the service of the public good.

             The old mantra in higher education’s relationship with its public and, even, private benefactors was essentially “support us because we are here.”  The new message is “support us because of what we do here.”

             And what we do here is all about the public good – a stronger economy, a healthier population, a cleaner environment, a more engaged citizenry, a more just society.  Is this not the role of government, too?   We must press that question and hold accountable ourselves and all our partners to this role, especially those who have been elected and entrusted to serve the public good.

             Finally, let me acknowledge very broadly and appreciatively the manner and substance of two of the most important conversations that we are having on our campus.  These are those that focus on the shape and spirit of our General Education program and those that explore the nature of our engagement with diversity, that is, the rich mix of people and ideas through which we acknowledge our social, political, and intellectual differences, even as we seek to build a community with shared values and goals.  And certainly high among the latter are civility and respect.

             I particularly want to acknowledge some of our good colleagues who are ensuring the quality of these conversations both in substance and in tone.  So, a shout out to Bill Loker, Sara Trechter, the members of the GE Design Team, and, really, the entire Academic Senate on the former.  And to Gayle Hutchinson, Tray Robinson, Tracy Butts, Chela Patterson, and the other faculty, staff, and students who developed the draft of our Diversity Action Plan.  Your work has set the table for the on-going discussions and much anticipated progress ahead of us. 

             These necessarily connected conversations recognize that a strong liberal education and a bold commitment to diversity are keys both to answering the most vociferous critics about the purpose and performance of higher education and to fulfilling our obligations to the society in which our students will take their place.  For education conceived as only job preparation, or as a rite of entry into the ranks of the privileged, is inadequate by so many measures.  Time and time again, we have seen that the most narrowly educated are the first to hit the unemployment lines – and the most likely to stay there the longest. We have seen the risk to our planet when we place our fate in the hands of a highly, but narrowly educated techno-political elite who lack humanistic perspective and an understanding of cultural context.

             Unless we acquaint and equip our students with curiosity and compassion, unless we cultivate in them a deep sense of civility and respect for, and among, all members of our community, an academic program focused narrowly on career preparation will be fleeting in application and specious in worth.  We can no more afford a society in which values are casual, vague, and relative than we can one in which our citizens and workforce lack imagination, inventiveness, and idealism.  Both a solid arts and sciences education and a community, unified and exhilarated through its diversity, reflect this understanding, because such a place recognizes the tight bond between developing the potential of the individual and fostering the progress of society as a whole.

             We are such a place. And this is our argument, our story, and our future.

             And as that great American philosopher, Yogi Berra, once observed: “The future is where you’ll spend the rest of your life.”  So, let’s get on with it. 

             Thank you, as always, for your kind attention and support.

             And one last thing:  for something completely different – yet very Chico – please show up in the Student Services Center plaza tomorrow morning at 11:00.   Who knows, you may find something worth shouting about.

             Now please enjoy some of the faces of Chico State and let’s meet in the courtyard outside for some refreshments.

             Again, thank you and let’s have a great year.