Virtual Convocation in empty phoenix room

UW-Green Bay Chancellor Mike Alexander’s 2020 Convocation Challenge

I would like to start my remarks today by saying thank you.  It can’t be said enough.  We have pushed to be as ready as possible for the fall.  Our staff has worked tirelessly to recruit and retain students and prepare our classrooms and living spaces, our faculty have reimagined what it means to provide access to classes, and campus leadership have mobilized all summer to adapt to changing environments, policies, and shifting situations.  My goal is to keep the convocation to under one hour and if I properly thanked everyone for their work at the end of last semester and over the summer, as opposed to giving a speech, it is quite possible we would not finish before the end of business today.  Plus, I would much prefer to dialogue with each of you.

How do I sum up what we have been through as a campus over the last six months?  I can simply say that we have clearly risen to the challenge that we have been presented with.  As of today, our enrollment is up and most importantly our retention of students is up.  Our students have responded to us by the fact that our summer enrollment was up over 40%, students are choosing to start here in the fall, and our current students are sticking with us in significantly higher numbers than last year.

Today, I can tell you we are financially stable in an industry that is filled with tremendous risk.  We are definitely not wealthy, but we are living within our means, which provides us a path forward.  We have been able to navigate an unprecedented event in higher education to this point, but there are certainly more challenging times ahead.  While I would love to provide you certainty today, it would not be candid for me to try to do so.  We are standing in as good of a place as possible today, but that can change at any moment based on events that could occur that might be entirely beyond our control.  While all of our attention at the moment is on trying to figure out how to effectively operate a university in the midst of a pandemic, I think the most important questions we must ask ourselves right now have to do with how we will evolve to meet our mission and vision in the coming years.

I would like to focus today on what we can control moving forward.  Three years ago, I was given a book by someone very special to me that in hindsight, I think accurately identifies the problem we are trying to solve today in higher education.  The book is entitled The Common Good by Robert Reich is relevant to the complex problems we are trying to navigate today in higher education.  I believe that we need to set our goal to build our university as one that belongs to the common good.  The idea is that we must reach beyond what is just good for us individually, what is good just for us as a university, and strive for what is good for our communities and our region.  I ask you today to join me on a quest to make that happen.

This is not a quest for those that fear a challenge.  It is obvious that universities are good for the economy, for research, and for advancing specific academic disciplines.  It is also clear universities benefit and reward those that do well in the traditional way in school, score high on tests, have family that have attended a higher education institution in the past, and often come from a socioeconomic background that is above the poverty line.  However, I ask you if this really serves the common good or only a portion of the population?  What about those who want to solve problems, but do not go to a school that inspires them to do so?  What about students who are eager to learn, but show it in a way that does not translate well to the memorization and regurgitation of information in a high school class?  What about those who do not have their basic needs met, do not have the means to move out of their region, and do not see how a higher level of educational attainment could help them and their community?  And, how does a university create equity in a community?  How does a university create dialogue among people who disagree?  How does a university help its populace appreciate the value of science to solve problems and the value of the liberal arts to help explain and improve the human condition?

These are the questions we must consider.  We must figure out the role we play as a regional comprehensive in answering them.  Our answers will be different than R1s, wealthy private institutions, and even universities in different regions and with different demographics.  It is easy for us to complain about the fact that higher education is underfunded, under attack, and undervalued by many.  It is harder to change our goal as a university to actually solve the issues I just mentioned for the community we serve.  It is possible that as we currently exist, we are doing good for our community, but we may not fully be contributing to the common good.

Justice Louis Brandeis asked and answered, “What are the American ideals? They are the development of the individual for his own and the common good; the development of the individual through liberty; and the attainment of the common good through democracy and social justice.” And FDR stated, “We now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we cannot merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective.”  Consider the proverb, if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.  How relevant are these statements now in the midst of a pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement?

How do these statements apply to our university?  I believe that we must be willing to fully unite behind our mission.  This is uncomfortable.  It means we will challenge norms.  It means we may look different than many other universities.  It means we might fail in a particular activity in an attempt to reach our overall goal.  It means we will need courage.  And it means we will have to let some traditions go in order to get to replace them with things that focus on the common good and not just the good of those that have traditionally gone to college in our region.  I ask that we consider the following:

In his book How to Be An Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi writes, “We arrive at demonstrations excited, as if our favorite musician is playing on the speakers’ stage. We convince ourselves we are doing something to solve the racial problem when we are really doing something to satisfy our feelings. We go home fulfilled, like we dined at our favorite restaurant. And this fulfillment is fleeting…The problems of inequity persist…We persistently do something to make ourselves feel better as we convince ourselves we are making society better, as we never make society better. What if instead of feelings advocacy we had an outcome advocacy that put equitable outcomes before our guilt and anguish? What if we focused our human and fiscal resources on changing power and policy to actually make society, not just our feelings, better?”

Let’s further consider Kendi’s powerful statement.  Let me start with the simple things we have already done.  We have provided meaningful funding for the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion to be done.  We will require all full-time employees to have initial important discussions and training on how to improve our equity and inclusionary practices as individuals and as an institution.  We have formed a police advisory council to support our university police to have a continuous open dialogue with the campus, and led by Chief Jones, our police have created several new programs to further the ways they can positively interact with the students they serve to protect.  We have started to enact our strategic plan for inclusive excellence.  And we have formed an impact initiative committee on the Council of Trustees on the subject of social justice that will be chaired by alum Cordero Barkley.  While a good start, unfortunately, this is not enough.

Brown County is 15% below the national average for the percentage of the population with an undergraduate degree and 41% below the average for graduate degrees.  This is why we must continue to grow.  By growing, we are solving a societal problem.  We are also below national and state averages for degree attainment when you look at our region.  If we do not solve this problem, our communities will fail due to inequity and an unsustainable economy.  Are we serving the common good?

Forty-eight percent of white students in Brown County are proficient in English and Language Arts, Black students are 14% proficient.  That statistic is not because Black students are less capable of proficiency in these areas.  It is because there is not equity in how those two populations access education.  What are we doing to not further exacerbate these problems at the higher education level?  We can’t just choose who we want to teach, instead we choose to teach all who want to be taught.  The goal of the university should not just be access, but success; not privilege, but growth.  Are we serving the common good?

There are more students in the Green Bay Area Public Schools whose native language is not English than there are in the total school population of students in 90% of the school districts in Wisconsin.  Are we doing, as a University, all we can to welcome students to UW-Green Bay that are not native English speakers?  I ask again, are we serving the common good when our student population is only 15% ethnically diverse (luckily that number is growing) and 69% of our student population comes from within our 16 county footprint.  We must stop saying some of our students are underprepared for college.  That may be true, but it is not the fault of the public schools or the students themselves. This is, once again, a societal issue and we should build our university around being ready to meet students where they are when they enter and not bemoan that they are not where we want them to be.  The question is are we willing to fix the problem or pass the buck?  The question comes down to what our goal is for education at a regional university like UW-Green Bay.  In my opinion, we must measure the growth of each student and use that as our measure of success.  We set high expectations for growth, but we do not start with a bar that is unattainable and then say the student could not leap over it.  Only with this attitude do we improve our society.  Only teaching well prepared students is comfortable, but will not create equity or a sustainable and diverse region for the future.  Are we willing to consider the common good?

Is our curriculum advancing more than just the traditional western canon or are we truly honoring the part of our mission that says we want to be globally informed?  What examples do your classes highlight?  Who is writing the books you are assigning, the music you are performing, and the art you are displaying?  Who owns the business we show as examples of success?  Are we providing connections to populations not traditionally entering the sciences?  This hits at the core of who we are welcoming in our classes.  Do they see themselves succeeding?  Are we willing to learn from the perspective of our students and not just provide our perspective to them?  Are we struggling to serve the common good in our classrooms or just teaching what and how we were taught as students when we were in school?

Consider that the average age of our students is 22, but how much energy and resources do we provide to those who are above the 18-22 age range?  Only ¼ of our students live on campus, but how much energy do we spend engaging those that are not living here?  Are we willing to continue to adapt to what we have learned from the pandemic?  Why did we grow by 40% in the summer?  I think it is because we expanded our offerings only in a way that met students where they were at and not taught in a delivery mode that has made us traditionally comfortable.  Are we willing to view education as something that can occur outside of 8:00-5:00?  Are we providing high impact practices in all that we do and for all who study with us or just those that can be at a class from 10-11 on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday?  I am so proud of our faculty for wrestling with these issues.  Our students are clearly responding and if we get the mix of synchronous and asynchronous offerings right, we will grow in ways we could never have dreamed.  What aspects of education do we need our students to be in person for?  Are we willing to also let them learn on their own and be informed by their prior life experience outside of the classroom?

In what may sound like an odd statement, I also think we need to stop worrying about degree completion for all students and start worrying about degree progression in a timely and efficient manner for everyone.  Each student will have a different educational goal when they come to us.  For most that start at 18, the goal will be to get a degree in four years, but for others that start mid-career, they may not want a degree, but a specific aspect of education that can advance their knowledge and opportunity.  This is a change in thinking.  We want all students to have access to education in an efficient way, but we must understand that not everyone will want a prepackaged degree.  They may only want a certificate, they may want non-credit skills-based courses, and they might even just be curious about a particular class.

I would also like us to consider our hiring practices in the years ahead.  Are they aimed at advancing our mission or encouraging us to look like all other institutions?  What do we value when we provide tenure and promotion and is it in alignment with our mission?  Are we hiring people that bring a diversity of ideas and backgrounds to our university or those that already confirm what we already know?  Can we search for people who believe fiercely in our mission, but might get there in ways that are outside of our norms?  Are we hiring and promoting for the common good of our region or to further the machine of higher education as it currently exists?

We must also look at our internal policies and practices and consider how the pandemic might have changed our acceptance of certain norms.  It is essential that we start measuring success in our workplace based on the quality and quantity of the work produced and not the number of hours spent in an office.  If we want to recruit and retain great faculty and staff, we must be willing to allow for complicated modern lives.  We also have to be willing to understand that our students also have complicated lives.  Why have we recruited and retained better this year?  My sense is that it is partly that we were working from home and could adjust our hours as we saw fit to accomplish our jobs and meet the needs of our particular family circumstances.  We must be committed to prioritizing the health, mental health, and wellness of not only our students, but also our faculty and staff.  To that end, we have formed another impact initiative with the Council of Trustees to guide us in these efforts.

If we do not fully grasp the equity issues laid bare by the pandemic, we will fail.  I do not have the answer to all of the questions I have asked today.  The answers will vary in every discipline and for every professor.  It will be found in the way we, as a staff, respond to every student’s circumstance. Even when we have answered the question countless times before.  Even when we are tired.  That is uncomfortable.  All I can ask you to do is to constantly question if you are teaching and performing your job as a staff member in a way that provides access and furthers the goal of the common good.  This applies to every facet of the university from facilities to residence life; business and finance to academic advisors, and IT to police.  We must fight for every student’s success.  Only with all of us working individually towards this goal can it be accomplished.  Leaders must be willing to make hard decisions, all of us need to hold ourselves accountable for keeping our work focused on this goal, and we all need to be aware of the opportunity we have as a university to truly define what it means to have a regional university focused on making the community it serves a better place.

Let me conclude today with a reminder of what I think makes us special.  When we did the work last year to see what made us unique, Carnegie Dartlett listened to us and gave us the following observations about our campus.  We are innovative, we are resilient, we are caring, and we are willing to fight to meet a noble mission.

We are innovative.  Continue to prove it with your actions.  Learn and experiment with how you can teach differently, truly provide high impact practices in every class, and perform research that can directly benefit your fields and our region.

We are resilient.  Model that.  Embrace the unknown just like we are asking our students to do.  Herd cats and celebrate when they all get to the end of a goal even if they take different routes to get there.  Don’t control the sound of the orchestra you are conducting.  Listen and value all of its unique voices to make a powerful whole.

We are caring.  Prove it every day.  Care when nobody is looking.  Just go out of your way to have empathy.  Do one thing each day that lets a student or colleague know that you care.  Just one thing.

We are willing to fight to achieve a university that aims to build a society that values the common good.  If a hurdle is in our way, we will get through it.  We will do so by being innovative, resilient, and caring in all that we do, but we will not stop.  We simply will not stop.

As we come together today, I hope the routine of the annual return to learning brings comfort and unified purpose to each of you.

I love this university.  It is poised to build on the profound vision on which it was founded.  Let us all rise together into the unknown.

Have a great year.

We are in this together.