On the starting up of another semester

Unlike the Simon and Garfunkel song I Am An Island, no one person is responsible for the work undertaken at BSU; and no one person can continue to move that work forward. It takes all of us working together to become the first choice regional university for Minnesota, and that is what we are working to become.

Anything less is unacceptable.

I was raised in a rural part of N. Carolina where we picked beans and cut okra during the week and worked in the woods on the weekend cutting and hauling trees to the Morven paper mill in order to survive financially as a family.

Like many high school students in NE Oklahoma, my family knew nothing about college and didn’t have the resources to send me even if they did.

And my 2.7 GPA didn’t exactly grab anyone’s attention.

So after high school graduation, I needed a job. However, Rockingham N.C. had few jobs to offer.

I paved roads and parking lots for 3 months, worked in a plastic bag factory in Hamlet for 3 months, got a high draft number pulled out of the military lottery, so joined the USAF to avoid being drafted, handed a rifle, and sent to Viet Nam.

After 4 years in the USAF, getting married and having 3 children, LaRae encouraged me to try college. After all, we had the G.I. Bill to help us survive financially and her family would be there to help smooth the adjustment to college life.

So we took the plunge. I enrolled at Utah State University as a 22 year old freshman with 3 children; four years of military experience living in Texas, Charleston, and Turkey; the G.I. Bill; 12 CLEP credits; and a part-time job.

And I was scared to death.

In high school I was on the vocational track, not the college prep track. I grew up in a rural area outside of a small town and was now surrounded by over 12,000 eighteen year olds wearing clothes with name brands that I couldn’t pronounce. I felt like a nameless face, one of dozens of others, listening to lectures by people with ‘all that education.’ During those first two weeks I thought: This isn’t going to work out; this isn’t for me; and what do I do now? I was preparing to give it up.

Then, something changed. A professor talked with me before our 7:30 a.m. math 101 class got started one morning, used my name, asked about me, and seemed to value the fact that I had recently come to college directly out of the Air Force. Then another professor did the same thing a few days later; then another. I learned how to take notes to pass tests. I learned how to study. I met some people who were older than 18.

Thinking back about that experience, I enrolled at Utah State knowing that I had to pursue more education. I had the desire, the life experience, and the work ethic to be successful, but those weren’t enough. The personal connection with professors, people, played the major role in getting me through to graduation. People changed my life, not the textbooks, the lectures, the quizzes and tests; while the learning gave me what I needed to be successful later and is THE reason to be enrolled at a university, the personal connection with professors in the classroom kept me coming back for more.
But it wasn’t just about the professors.

As a new student, the first few days were filled with counter encounters…where you stand in line forever, walk up to ask a question or fill out a form, have a brief exchange, and then walk away. Or you walk into an office and are greeted by someone sitting behind a desk who is either on the phone or typing, while you stand there wondering if you should interrupt. Having been in the military, I learned to accept that as standard practice, but after the first few days at Utah State, I learned that not all counter encounters are like that.

There are those behind the counters and desks who care about you as a person, who ask you your name during the conversation, and who seem to really enjoy what they do. I learned that it wasn’t the form or information that mattered; it was the feeling of being a person I left with after the counter encounter that mattered. Again, the personal connection.

Why am I sharing this? Three reasons:

1. I would not be here if Utah State University faculty and staff had continually treated me as a non-entity, a number, a nameless face in the crowd. If Utah State University professors like Bill Strong, Kay Camperell, Richard Knight, and Cliff Craig hadn’t stepped up to connect with me, I very well could have dropped out and abandoned the goal of becoming a teacher.

2. I would not have been admitted at NSU. I didn’t meet our current admissions criteria. I didn’t have the GPA, class rank or ACT score needed.

3. I promised incoming new BSU freshmen at the candle light ceremony in the fall that BSU faculty and staff put learning and students first, but will challenge them and push them. I also promised them that if they are treated like a number, feel disrespected or ignored at BSU, and begin thinking about leaving…to get in touch with me.

I know this place. Being here for almost nine years doesn’t make me a permanent resident, but coming back to BSU was like coming home for me. I know this place.

I know how friendly, how helpful, how supportive, and how committed to students faculty and staff are. This is the kind of place where you can’t make it through Luekens or Wal Mart without having several conversations with strangers about how to cook asparagus or what to do with that strange looking vegetable that you can’t pronounce.

The promise I made to those students will stand the test of time. We are a public university, of and for the people, before we are anything else. I trust that. Like many of you, I devoted my career to that. Like many of you, that is why I came to Bemidji State University.

Martin Luther once said: “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”

Despite some of the most challenging obstacles ever placed before us as a university community, we are planting apple trees at BSU, doing incredibly important work, and we are creating our future rather than waiting for others to create a future for us.

But what we do here isn’t just about BSU. It’s also about issues that go to the heart and soul of education and what it means to live in a society where survival of a democratic way of life is dependent upon an educated, thoughtful citizenry.

Thomas Jefferson said:

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. Ignorance and sound self-government cannot exist together: the one destroys the other. A despotic government can restrain its citizens and deprive the people of their liberties only while the people are ignorant.”

I recently read an article by a colleague summarizing the doomsday forecasts of media pundits and others decrying the state of higher education in the U.S., even some of our own university colleagues who love to criticize the very core of what we are and what we stand for as a public learning community.

He said:

“When did students and their parents start seeing college as a gauntlet rather than as an exciting pathway to opportunity? When did policy makers stop seeing higher education as a valuable public investment? When did a degree become a commodity to be sold and traded in the marketplace with little regard to what it means to be an educated person? When did I start playing for a losing team?”

Allow me to answer that last question for my colleague: NEVER! Not now, not ever. I don’t play for a losing team.

Let me take a little more time to respond to the other questions, which do reflect the current state of higher education in Minnesota and in the U.S.

First, the New Normal doesn’t require that we toss the baby out with the bath water. Universities have been, and always need to be, places where the discovery of knowledge and the application of knowledge to address real problems and real issues in society are at the center of what we do.

At BSU, teaching and learning may be pre-eminent, but we value discovery and the application of knowledge as well.

Most importantly, we are trying to live democratic principles of inclusion, rational dialogue, reasoned thought, and an unrelenting commitment to social justice for all people regardless of social standing, economic capacity, race, religion, gender, ethnicity, political affiliation, sexual preference…categories sometimes used to marginalize those not ‘like us.’

We value those things because we are a public university of and for the people. Those are all at the core of who we are and what we do.

Secondly, everyone here is a teacher; and everything teaches. Every interaction. Some teach in formal classroom settings; but all of us teach through every interaction with a student or client. We are charged with a responsibility to mentor the next generation of neighbors, colleagues, and friends. When a young person or not so young person goes to college they join a community of learners.

And finally, we know that people will pay for a quality educational experience within the means they have available to them, but the cost of a quality educational experience is getting beyond the means of those who need it most. We cannot increase costs, and contrary to what most believe, we can reduce costs and enhance quality. It takes a willingness to put aside our personal baggage and seriously consider research on the effectiveness of new technologies and new pedagogical models that we may not be comfortable with because many of us were not raised with them.

Hybrid/blended course delivery is one of those pedagogical models and a recent meta-analysis of the research on that blended learning indicates that students learn and retain more when engaged in blended models than in a purely online environment or a purely face to face environment. Online and face to face environments were shown to impact learning equally well, but not as well as in a blended environment.

And what of other approaches proven effective that some believe are new and innovative, such as embedding field experiences and service learning within the curriculum; inquiry based approaches; experiential and project based learning; analysis of real-world case studies, Socratic dialogue, and an ever present focus on problem solving and critical thinking…all proven to be highly effective.

They aren’t new.

They come from a history of progressive, constructivist educational practices in Europe and the U.S. dating from the late 1700’s and the work of Pestalozzi and others.
Through the 1800’s with Montessori and others. Through the 1900’s and the work of Dewey and the progressive education association within the U.S. Into the 2000’s as it evolved to include critical pedagogy and the work of Freire, Giroux…McClaren, Kohn, Apple, Kozol and Palmer.

And those are just a few of the European and European-Americans who influenced U.S. educational thought and practice. You can find a similar history of experiential and progressive educational thought and practices among indigenous populations in the U.S. and elsewhere as well.

Let’s get to the point here.

Constructivist, progressive educational models that engage students in a partnership with the teacher to build a curriculum around challenging outcomes, design experiential learning activities to meet those outcomes, and jointly assess attainment of those outcomes, work. They are not new. Those models have been heavily researched, reviewed, practiced and written about for over 300 years. Just as importantly, those models align with the democratic principles we espouse as a public university and are trying to live at BSU.

As faculty and staff, how can we ask for and expect inclusion in shared decision making and expect our voice to be heard if we then turn around and exclude students from decisions regarding the content of the curriculum, the learning activities undertaken to learn that curriculum, and the assessment practices used to determine how well they have learned?

Likewise, how can we say that we value diversity when we standardize the curriculum, standardize our teaching approaches, and standardize the assessment of learning so that one size fits all…a process I have heard referred to as the McDonaldization of education?

While there are common knowledge and skill sets we could all agree upon as important for everyone, are we forgetting our core purposes as an institution of higher education when we fail to include student voice in decisions about their learning? Do we make learning bland and tasteless through an over emphasis on standardization?

I believe that we need to celebrate educational experiences that are rigorous, peer reviewed, and research-driven; experiences that engage students in relevant, hands-on learning and critical thought; and we need to build courses with students that provide those experiences.

I want to end by leaving you with a challenge in two areas. The first:

Qualitative growth direction

Our focus must be on quality. If our teaching is grounded in best practice, student learning outcomes will reflect that. If our service to others is superb, our image in the eyes of students and the community will rise. Since everything teaches, that means every interaction; every experience must be an outstanding one for our students, our community members and our colleagues. Just because many students come to us less prepared then we would like, they deserve no less than a student entering Harvard, Yale, or Stanford. We take them as they are and we expect their best efforts, providing needed support for them to be successful.

Here is the challenge for you:

When we face obstacles, proactively bring forward ideas to remove them. No complaints, no blame, no procrastination. We need to be a university of ideas. If we raise our expectations of ourselves and of those we work with, the word will get out and those we serve will become our best promoters and their messages will market BSU for us.

The second: Strategic shrinkage direction

Here is the challenge:

Let’s make the tough choices needed to strategically shrink what we are doing…to stop doing some things in order to focus on our core mission. Do that at the unit level. For the university, let’s suggest what could go on the stop doing list and bring those forward through our governance process to the cabinet.

If we do those two things, qualitative growth and strategic shrinkage, we will be a much healthier, sustainable university than we currently are, and we are pretty damn good right now.