2017 Convocation

Seattle University Arts & Sciences Convocation Address 2017

Bringing the Mission to the Moment

David Powers, Ph.D., Dean, College of Arts & Sciences


     Hello everyone, it is really great to see you all and gather back together to start another year. I hope you had some time for R&R this summer, to have fun and recharge your batteries. At the same time, it was a very challenging summer in ways that have direct implications for our students, our community and what we do, and I'll talk more about that later.

    Even before the year ended in June, I thought a lot about where the focus should be today for a  ”State of the College” address, what I should talk about with so many things going on inside and outside the college, in our community and in our culture. I found that question answered by the Dean's performance review. I got a lot of constructive, supportive feedback in that process and I want to sincerely thank all of you who took the time to respond. We will talk about the feedback and the process in more detail later in the quarter as a college, with Julie Staggs, the person from Korn Ferry who managed the whole process. For today, I want to respond to two key points and elaborate on the second one.

    First point, there was some feedback about emails. It may surprise a few of you to hear that others in the college view my emails as perhaps too long in narrative form, not using common conventions of the medium to highlight key points with bulleting, or bold print. So, I would like to provide my reflections on your feedback to give you a sense of how I plan to move forward in response.

Got it.

Second, and something of key importance to who we are and how we move forward, were questions about the vision for the college now and moving ahead. Based on direct interviews with chairs and others who worked most directly with me, it seemed they understood my perspective and vision for moving forward. However, among the larger body of the faculty and staff who filled out the surveys --and thank you again for that -- there were a number of questions about how I saw the college, where I saw us going and how I saw us getting there.

This gap seems important to close. Who we are and where we go is, and must be, a shared vision. However, as the leader of the college I have a responsibility to communicate my position as one of the starting points in the development of that shared vision. So, today I want to share my thoughts on where we are and the road ahead, with the understanding that the next step is to have a conversation about our shared vision and how that vision shapes, and becomes manifest in, our goals and our next strategic plan.

It seems to me that when we have this conversation we almost always start at the mission of Seattle University. That is important, but we don't often enough take another step back to the more fundamental starting point, the purpose of a university. So here's my take on that.

The fundamental precept of a university is the growth and extension of knowledge and creativity at the highest level of human capacity. Let me say that again, the fundamental precept of a university is the growth and extension of knowledge and creativity at the highest level of human capacity. Think about that. How amazing is that, that we come in to work every day to contribute to that? That we share in that endeavor, that our careers are dedicated to the growth and extension of knowledge and creativity at the highest level of human capacity, and I mean everyone in the room, it takes everyone in the room, faculty and staff alike. That's what we strive for, that's what we do. And it is critically important, right now.

So we start with that foundation, but here, at Seattle U, it gets even better.  We're doing all this for a reason, to meet a mission, based on values toward a shared greater good. Our mission is that we are dedicated to educating the whole person, to professional formation, and to empowering leaders for a more just and humane world. We approach that mission from the values of care for the person, academic excellence, diversity, faith, justice and leadership. The mission and our values allow us to focus our work even more specifically toward a greater good for all and the world, with an emphasis on the social justice component of our Jesuit Catholic perspective. I am proud to be at an institution that has these values and that mission at the center of itself, proud that we strive toward doing the best we can to live out those values in our teaching, scholarship, creative works and community culture, while knowing that in our humanity that striving will be imperfect.

I believe the university mission and values are of a quality, strength and goodness that stand the test of time, but we are the people who will determine how fully that mission is lived out today, how effectively we can bring it into the lives of our students right now, and how well that mission and those values stay with them and make a positive difference in our world in the years to come. We have the privilege and responsibility of bringing the mission to the moment, bringing the mission to our moment in ways that keep it vibrant throughout and beyond our time together at Seattle University. 

Now, our moment is a time of particular opportunities, challenges, headaches and joys. We are in an era of massive transition and transformation in the world, in the field of higher education, in the politics of our country, and in the nature of our city, through a technology and growth boom that has directly affected all of us. We're here in the Pacific Northwest, in Seattle in this moment, and people look to us to be thought leaders connected to our region and what is happening here. What I want to share with you is what I think the keys are to being successful in bringing the mission to our moment as a vibrant, values-based university, now and for the next few years. I want to talk about four actions I believe can help us succeed in the short and long term:    

  1. Growing student connections beyond the classroom
  2. Advancing programs and resources with effectiveness and creativity
  3. Teaching and living the social justice mission
  4. Doing these things together as a professional academic community

First, growing student connections beyond the classroom. Summer in Seattle is a time in July when the incoming freshman and transfer students visit with their families, register for classes and get the lay of the land. There are two things I always talk about when I meet with the families, then the students. I explain about the weather, I say it's simple, there are two kinds of weather on campus, perfect weather, which they see in July, and perfect studying weather, which starts in late October.

Second, I say that the classroom experience is the foundation for their learning here and the place where they can critically discuss and reflect on everything else, but they should do three things outside of the classroom before they graduate: 1) they should work on scholarship or creative works with faculty members outside of the classroom, so that they get to the edge of knowledge and creativity in their major 2) they should go out and engage with a community beyond campus, here in our neighborhood or somewhere in the world so they can genuinely connect with the lived experience of others who are different from them, and 3) they should have some sort of professional experience, whether that is practicum, internship or some work experience, that gives them a chance to engage the world in a professional setting.

Each of these three options are invaluable ways of growing student connections beyond the classroom for their own development. We can and should continue our good work and build on it in each of these areas. To briefly touch on each, I think our relative strength right now is in community engagement. Faculty scholarship and creative endeavors continues to grow, particularly grant-supported faculty work has grown significantly in the past year, providing more opportunities for students. You may have heard about the $2.3M ADVANCE Grant to examine the tenure process, you may not know that A&S faculty were awarded $1.9M in other new grant funding just last year from sources such as NSF, Gates Foundation, State Department, Seattle Housing Authority and several private foundations. The place where I think we need to make the most growth and most visible growth among these three categories is in professional engagement opportunities for students. We do have several undergraduate majors and graduate programs that require internships, and many more that offer them, but we need to more actively encourage a larger number of students to do internships and practica, and use our established relationships with non-profit organizations, governmental agencies, businesses, and our many successful A&S alumni across the region to connect them to professional opportunities.

The value proposition of higher education is declining in the minds of many people today, and the most often cited reasons I hear are: first, the cost and second, our relevancy to professional employment. This is an issue at universities around the world, and is being addressed in many ways. Great Britain has created "degree apprenticeship" programs where students work four days a week and go to classes one day a week to earn their degree. This gap is likewise being filled by companies here in Seattle that recruit and charge recent graduates from around the country to come here and take internships with local businesses. I firmly believe liberal arts education is as important as ever, and it is clear that our liberal arts majors and graduate students are successful professionally, but we need to do more to actively foster professional engagement and success before graduation.

A second critical action now is advancing programs and resources with effectiveness and creativity. I want to stay at a broad level of vision in these remarks, but mentioning budget here is important. Budget does not determine our mission, but is a critical parameter in how we live it out. The most direct route to continued and improved budget health for the university is to average more students, even just a few more students, in each classroom. I am convinced that improving student faculty ratio is the best path to improved resources and salary competitiveness.

We can and should work not only to  get back to the student-faculty ratio of five years ago, as you saw in the advance information I sent out on Monday, but improve upon it by at two or three students per faculty member over the next few years. There are steps departments in A&S are taking to structure curricula that maintain or improve curricular quality while minimizing the number of low-enrolled or under-enrolled courses and programs. We can and will make some exceptions for curricular and mission imperatives, but we need to do a better job of balancing those exceptions with more robust enrollment across the board. 

We will continue to need to shape how we are directing our resources, and budget, to best meet our mission, but there are many creative ways we can move forward successfully, and we can do it, no question.  Universities across the country are looking at what programs they have, how the programs are structured and how they can offer quality programs in ways that make their value and relevance clearer to potential students. We talked about many of these last year and several are now in place here. A group from the Educational Advisory Board came and gave two presentations. Each started with a general overview of challenges in higher education today, but really focused on specific examples of things that colleges around the country have done to improve their effectiveness and better demonstrate direct connections between academic offerings and marketable professional skills that in many cases already exist. Can I see a show of hands of people who went to these EAB presentations?

Ask a few of these people what they thought. I was encouraged that there are relatively easy steps we can take in several different areas to clarify the practical value of our programs and make them more visible to prospective students and their families. We have much more vibrancy and relevance in our programs than we get credit for, or than we even recognize ourselves, and we can increase that not only by looking at particular disciplines but by looking across them. I know that relevancy has always been there, but it is increasingly incumbent upon us to explicitly demonstrate it. We may need to try more new things, and in an entrepreneurial spirit be comfortable with a higher failure rate of new and old ideas to get to the best ones.

I think it will help us to look at developing and highlighting programs that cut across disciplinary boundaries at the graduate level in ways similar to what we do at the undergraduate level, and looking at how we can better infuse the technological zeitgeist of our time and particularly our region into the content and the delivery of our curriculum. I believe that one of the best paths for Seattle University to have positive influence and visible relevance today is to advance the extent to which our curriculum and our digital technology culture inform each other. That will better fit where we are with who we are.

Another component of fitting where we are, or perhaps more accurately when and where we are, with who we are, is in how we live out the social justice part of our mission and identity today.  I believe that now is a time to stand more firmly within our mission rather than shy away from it in the face of cultural and political headwinds. The Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, began refreshing their commitment to social justice in a meeting called the 34th General Congregation in the 1970s, and Peter Hans Kolvenbach tied that commitment directly to Jesuit higher education at a conference on Commitment to Justice in Higher education at Santa Clara University in 2000.

The most recent meeting of that conference was here at Seattle University over the summer. The themes of religious discrimination, racism and income disparity were highlighted in small group presentations and by powerful keynote speakers including Eboo Patel, Fr. Bryan Massingale and Sister Simone, the "nun on the bus" whose work on the issue of income disparity was a key part of the passing of the Affordable Care Act.  Racism, religious discrimination, sexism, heterosexism and income disparity, these intersectional issues are at the heart of social injustice today. Addressing these issues is central to our mission, and I think we need to avoid the current cultural trap of seeing these issues, and particularly racism only as "out there" and not as "in here".

Allow me to use height as an analogy. If you are five feet tall and you teach kindergarten, you're usually the tallest person in the room. If you are six feet tall and you play professional men's basketball, you're usually the shortest person on the court. However, if you are going to buy clothes and understand what fits you, then asking "are you tall or not" is not helpful enough. It's not a yes or no, you need to know more precisely how tall you are. I believe our emphasis on social justice is toward a greater good and that is most important, but it is also toward a practical good.

If we educate our students well on social justice issues, they can help our democracy function better, they will do better at understanding the fastest growing populations of the consumer market and of our state, in ways that will give them a competitive edge in professional organizations and businesses; they will relate to their neighbors, professional colleagues and employees in authentic ways that will help their communities and civic and professional organizations thrive. And, while we help our students address issues of intersectionality, we need to understand ourselves, and not be defensive about reflecting on and addressing how "tall" we are.

The campus climate survey conducted several years ago pointed out we have some work to do in that area, and attending to issues of intersectionality in our college culture as well as addressing them through our academic curriculum, will help us better educate our students and be a living example of how to work on those issues in a community. It is as important as it has ever been toward our work making a distinctive, important and lasting difference in our world as an institution of higher education.

Fourth, taking up these, or any, issues as key points to address moving forward will require us to work together as a professional academic community. We need each other, faculty, staff and students, to succeed through the opportunities and challenges ahead. The more we can come together the stronger we will be, and our formal systems and informal relationships are both important. We are starting the second year of our new shared governance system, and while there are some kinks to work out, I think the enhanced level of communication, shared understanding and shared decision-making is making a positive difference in community-building, morale and the quality of our academic enterprise. In the Jesuit tradition we have strengthened our communal reflection and discernment toward wiser and more effective action, and I think that is great. The challenge we face here, and it is a common one, is that shared governance often takes more time, and today we have less of it. Our college, university, other higher education institutions and our accrediting bodies all need to improve the pace of many of our processes. I don't fully know how to get to a place of enhanced shared governance and improved procedural pace, improving pace and quality seems a challenge, but I think it would help us greatly to meet it and it's time to try harder on this.

So those are four key actions I see in my vision of what's ahead for us, for how we bring the mission to the moment in the 21st century, in the beginning of the third millennium:

  • Growing student connections beyond the classroom,
  • Advancing programs and resources with effectiveness and creativity,
  • Teaching and living the social justice mission, and
  • Doing these things together as a professional academic community.

We already have some exciting things coming up this year in each of these domains and I want to mention a few of them.

 To grow student connections beyond the classroom, and in coordination with the Arts & Sciences Leadership Council, the Board of Regents and the Alumni Office, the Dean's office will host our second annual student-alumni mentoring event for our students, directly connecting them with successful alumni in a wide range of fields.

We have several innovative new programs and curricular changes.

  • Our MSW program grows to full size with the addition of the Advanced Standing program and the second year of the full Masters program.
  • The University Honors Program begins the new Society, Policy and Citizenship Track. It is a distinctive track compared to other Honors programs across the country, and the key focus seems even more important now than when it was conceptualized.
  • The Communications Department begins the first year of their Communications and Media major, integrating three majors into one with shared base of courses and three specializations, matching the more integrated nature of their field today.
  • Also, the Sport and Exercise Science Program has changed its name to Kinesiology, more accurately representing their program to prospective students and placing them in line with the direction of their field.
  • The Leadership Committee on Intersectionality and Justice begins their work this year, you will hear more from them across the year, and we will begin offering the opportunity for faculty, staff and students to attend a workshop I attended last year on addressing institutional racism. In terms of doing all these things together, we are continuing to work on our new shared governance processes, particularly how FSS and EC develop and approve policies together, and the other schools and colleges as well as ACA are looking to us as a model for the university moving ahead.

Today I have focused on what I see as important it is time to refresh the vision of what we see together and renew our strategic focus and direction for the next five years. We will begin that process later in the year and our new Associate Dean of Academic Community, Dr. Sonora Jha, will take a lead role in developing and rolling out that work. 

I want to end where I started, with our foundation. As a university, we are committed to the growth and extension of knowledge and creativity at the highest level of human capacity. At Seattle University, we base that work on values, toward our mission for a greater good. The College of Arts & Sciences has the talent, strength and creativity to bring the mission to the moment and to the future. We undoubtedly have the intellect to meet the challenges we face today and together we can bring our mission forward in ways that will make a difference for generations ahead.