INSIDE Chico State
0 December 2, 1999
Volume 30 Number 9
  A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico




In The News

Provost's Corner







Provost's Corner

What did you want to be when you grew up?
Visions and Big Ideas

Scott McNall, Provost
Scott G. McNall, Provost


Not too long ago, my mother gave me a photograph of myself. I'm about five years old, standing in the backyard of the house. I'm wearing my explorer outfit, which included a pith helmet, an old cartridge belt my father brought home from the Second World War, and a tan shirt and pair of trousers. I tramped around the woods in my explorer outfit, built shelters with brush I chopped down, and ate the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches my mother fixed.

My tramping the woods in search of something to discover was partly in response to a book my mother was reading to me at bedtime, Thrills of a Naturalist's Quest. I loved the book because I could imagine myself at some time in the future discovering a lost tribe, a giant butterfly, or an exotic animal, and naming these exotic species. That wasn't, however, the only thing I wanted to be. At other times, I wanted to be a doctor, or a veterinarian—something that would be interesting and fun and that I could do all my life because it wouldn't be boring. But, I also knew, before I even started grade school, that to be the things I wanted to be, I had to go to something called college, and to get there I had to start in grade school and work my way forward.

Although what I wanted to be kept changing, it was the vision of the kind of person I wanted to be that kept me moving forward. My vision shaped my plan. I suspect that many of you, too, had animating visions which guided your steps toward and through higher education.

But, it isn't just people who need visions to stay focused, to develop plans, and to progress. Universities are also sustained by visions, and they must have plans and ideas about how to make those visions a reality, if they are to be successful. What would make an institution, like a university, great?

Collins and Porras (Built to Last, 1994) wondered why some organizations flourished and others did not. Although they focused on major corporations such as Motorola, Sony, and GE, their findings have proven useful in understanding nonprofit organizations such as universities. Briefly, great organizations have a vision that consists of two fundamental components: a clear articulated future and a core ideology (made up of values and purpose). Applying these notions to a university, the core purpose of a university is easy to identify. Or is it? One of our fundamental core purposes is to educate students. Is that our only purpose? In my last column, "The Engaged University," I argued that a fundamental purpose of a university was to connect with and serve its local community, and to help students embrace a life of active citizenship. Others might argue that a university's purpose must be to help a community solve its social and economic problems, or to help improve K-12 education. Whatever one decides the core purpose of an institution is, it determines how the organization goes about doing its job and how people focus their energies, e.g., people teach, advise, mentor, serve, and advance scholarship.

What does it mean to speak of an institution's core values? The core values of our university are easy to identify because they are clearly articulated in our Strategic Plan. For instance, the first priority states, "Believing in the primacy of student learning, we will continue to develop high quality learning environments both in and outside of the classroom." The second priority reads, "Believing in the importance of faculty and staff, and their role in student success, we will continue to invest in faculty and staff development." Priority three underscores our belief that technology can enhance the learning and teaching environment; four says that we believe in service to others and that we will meet the educational, cultural, and economic needs of Northern California; and five reaffirms our commitment to being accountable for the resources entrusted to us.

We have systematically gone about developing action plans for every one of those priorities and have made significant progress toward the accomplishment of every one of them. It is important to underscore the point, however, that we will never be able to stop developing action plans to implement the priorities, because the priorities are core values. A vibrant organization always tries to do better.

Where does vision enter the picture? For an organization to be successful, its vision must be grounded in its core values and purpose. But a vision must also be forward looking. It is not vague and abstract; it clear and concrete. It's a wake-up call. It speaks to the imagination and what might be. The vision statement for CSU, Chico is a solid one. It notes that we are a residential campus and that we seek to be the university of choice for all students who are willing to commit to a life of intellectual rigor, moral development, creative accomplishment, and citizenship in the worlds beyond the university. As the institution has matured, we have refined our sense of what we hope to be. On occasions, we have said that we seek to be among the best in the West (and we have certainly made progress). We have said we want to be one of the best comprehensive universities in the country, and we have also made substantial progress toward that vision. But many other universities also have the same kind of visions.

Think for a moment about those universities you consider to be great universities. To be great you do not have to be the same as everybody else. What counts is deciding what you want to be and sticking to your plan for years. Let me identify what I think have been the great, although often unarticulated, ideas which have animated our university. "We believe in the future of our students." "We believe in the importance of providing the students with opportunities to learn outside of the classroom." "We are committed to providing an education grounded in the liberal arts, but practical in application."

As we look to the future, what would be the big ideas that would engage people and help us to be one of the best public universities in the West? I believe our strengths lie in the deep and profound connections we have already made to the community, and in the rich opportunities we provide students in terms of internships, experiential education, service-learning courses, and community service. What if we collectively said, "We will embrace the community's problems as ours, and we will work actively to solve them in partnership with the community"? What if we said, "Our future is our children; we will work to care for them, to educate them, give them hope, help them realize the potential locked inside of them?" What if we said, "We will train California's next citizen leaders?" If we chose one of these three to focus our future efforts, it would not detract for a moment from our core values. We could be a distinctive university by embracing one or two major challenges and seeking to realize it over the next decade. I look forward to hearing from you about what you think we should be when we grow up. -- Scott G. McNall, Provost




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