Provost's Corner: Sailing into Unknown Waters

Mcnall Captain James Cook, the great explorer of the Pacific, had cast off and bid farewell to his Hawaiian Island friends in the year 1779. His visit had been, from Cook's perspective, a spectacular success. When his ship first arrived, it was drawn to anchor in the harbor by over 10,000 Hawaiians, who over the next weeks treated Cook as though he were a god. Shortly after leaving, Cook's ship sprung its foremast, so Cook and his crew returned to harbor on February 11. This time there was no welcoming party, and on February 14, Cook was stabbed to death and his flesh cooked. Cook was first treated as a god because the Hawaiians' religious beliefs led them to that conclusion. Cook's return, according to their belief system, meant that he was a usurping god come to wrest power from the ruling kings.

There are a surprising number of lessons to draw from this story. Let me choose just two. First, left to their own devices, most people are going to play out their lives by rules which they do not question. The second lesson is that people ought to question the assumptions that govern their behavior and structure their world, because if they do not, they can risk what they value.

Not too long ago a faculty member asked me: Why do we need to change? Explain to us why we must do things differently. Part of the answer is that sometimes we need to change things; sometimes we need to keep things just as they are. In deciding what we must keep and what we must change, we respond according to our core values. We must determine what we value and examine our assumptions about what we do well. In order to take charge of the process of change.

For at least the past three years, conversations on this campus have revolved around the topic of social change and the need for individuals and for the entire institution to embrace an agenda of change. Change, as Cook's story tells us, occurs whether we act deliberately or not. In the world of human endeavor we often act consciously, as individuals or members of some collective, to change something. This something can be relatively simple, as when a teacher changes a text she is using in a class, or more complex, as when we band together with like-minded people in the state to change what we view as an unjust law. As social beings, we tend to be rule-governed creatures, going about our tasks in the same way, day after day. But doing things the same way can lead to radical transformations when others bring different assumptions to the same setting or play by a different set of rules, as Captain Cook found out.

Abraham Lincoln said, "If we could first know where we are, and where we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it." Where are we and where are we going? What do we need to do? What do we value and how do we protect it? Let me begin with a statement of what we are and what we value. In the fall of 1995, as part of our Strategic Plan for the Future, the campus adopted a vision statement. It spoke of our unique residential situation, our commitment to students, our willingness to create high quality learning environments, and our effort to develop and sustain a collaborative community of learning and teaching. We spoke as one of our desire to stimulate intellectual rigor, moral development, and creative accomplishments in our students, and our desire to help them mature and participate as citizens in the world beyond the University. We articulated a mission for the institution that affirmed the importance of scholarship, and said we wanted to be known for the purposeful integration of liberal and applied learning; we want our students to acquire the knowledge, skills, and sense of purpose that will form the basis of life-long learning. You will recognize your university in these thoroughly worthwhile intentions, and in the description of the lived reality of the institution in which you study, work, teach, mentor, and model behavior.

If our vision and mission statements represent what we value, and reflect who we are, then so, too, does The Strategic Plan for the Future. The five priorities which characterize this plan, and the ways in which those priorities are being implemented, are a blueprint for the future but also a plan firmly rooted in the history. For example, the first priority, which is to create high quality, student-centered learning environments, reflects our view that learning and knowledge are essential for human growth and development and that we, as instructors and staff, have a responsibility to make sure that we create the kind of caring environments that make such growth possible. Our second priority is to invest in faculty and staff development. Here, we see the core value of the need for people to maintain disciplinary competency, to be content experts, and to be guides to students. We all believe that constant renewal and intellectual growth are essential for members of the university community. Our fifth priority calls for us to diversify revenue. The core values embedded here relate to the need to achieve flexibility and to provide revenues that will allow us not only to do our job well, but to become an institution of singular distinction. A campaign for scholarships by raising additional revenues must be understood as a means to provide a margin of excellence. The priorities, then, are not ends in themselves but statements about what is meaningful in a university. We have not altered the Strategic Plan since 1995 because one does not casually modify a statement of such values.

What we value provides the standpoint from which we confront the challenges ahead. Change must occur, but as the president of Bennington has pointed out, change in universities must be driven by principles. Before a course of action is charted, there must be reasons provided, assumptions examined, and alternatives presented.

I will talk about assumptions and alternatives in the next column.

Scott G. McNall

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