Provost's Corner: Sailing into Unknown Waters II


Scott G. McNall
In the last column, published in November 1997, I explained the dramatic turnabout in Cook's fortunes, which occurred simply because everybody played out their established roles and acted on the basis of what they thought was right. We are now engaged across the University in examining our assumptions. I have asked all departments and programs to identify strategic priorities and to consider such questions as

• What is the mark or characteristic of a graduate in your program or department?

• What constitutes good teaching and how do you measure this?

• What is the intellectual purpose or function of your department/program?

• How do teaching and research reinforce one another in your program/department?

Answering these questions and others is not simple. The answers to the questions do, however, provide a means to examine assumptions we make about learning, teaching, and the role of research—the very intellectual purpose of what we do. We will be asked, soon, to submit a "report card" to the Chancellor's Office, and eventually the Legislature, listing our accomplishments, shortcomings, and goals. Our requests for information must be understood within these contexts of increasing accountability.

You will remember that 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." In Lincoln's terms, we know who we are, and what we want to be. We know where we are tending. Building on the Strategic Plan, I identified earlier in the year a set of goals for Academic Affairs, significant to me and which I believe reflect the aspirations of faculty, staff, and students. The goals were to

• enhance the quality and rigor of our academic programs,

• establish institutional distinctiveness,

• recruit high-achieving students,

• achieve financial stability,

• focus on student-centered learning,

• enrich faculty and staff development programs, and

• establish a climate of accountability in which a culture of evidence shapes our decision-making process.

We all need to work to achieve these goals.

Let us consider another process of change to which we must pay careful attention. Many of our current faculty and staff are reaching a stage in their careers where they will retire from the institution. As the student body continues to grow, we will have to hire additional faculty and staff who can help to create positive learning environments. There are some important questions we should ask ourselves. First, we must consider whether specialists or generalists can help the University achieve the future that has been envisioned. Should we hire people who have a willingness to reach out across departments and colleges to build new programs in areas we have not yet imagined? Do we want to hire faculty who are committed to the life of a residential campus, and what would we take as a sign of that commitment? How would we support the faculty and staff who commit themselves to creating active ties with the larger community?

It is not my purpose to answer these questions here, only to suggest that they should be considered. I have told each person involved in the hiring decisions in Academic Affairs to fill each position as though the future of the institution depended on it. To do that requires thinking about what the institutional needs will be ten or fifteen years from now.

Our job is also made more difficult, budgetarily, by a major change in the way the California State University system does business. We no longer operate with what many remember as "The Orange Book," whose formulae spelled out precisely how many faculty, advisers, administrators, and so forth, would result from a given level of student enrollment. We are now funded, simply, on the basis of number of students, and we divide the money we receive, depending on campus needs, to fund everything we require to teach the students, keep the doors open, and turn on the lights—faculty, staff, technology, books, sidewalks, promotions, reclassifications, faculty and staff development, travel, utilities, telephones, and so forth. What we must determine, and in short order, is what mix of needs we fund when a position becomes vacant. When a full professor decides to take retirement, we normally hire somebody at an entry-level position to fill the position, which means extra dollars. These "extra" funds have many competing demands. If we need new microscopes, another biologist, and another technical staff person, we have to decide how to parcel out the scarce resources available when someone retires. To this end, I have asked staff to work with me to develop a model that will identify various university needs over the next several years, determine which resources will become available to us through retirements, project enrollment growth, and determine how we can meet the goals we have all articulated.

The danger we face does not lie in trying out new ideas, in exploring different ways of doing things. In fact, circumstances demand we do so. The danger lies in believing, like Captain Cook returning to Hawaii, that one success naturally follows another. Success, however, grows out of thoughtful consideration on how to sustain what we value.

Scott G. McNall


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