2007 Opening Remarks - Marty Wood, University Senate Chair
Good morning. This is my first chance as Senate Chair to address faculty and academic staff; I thank the classified staff for your patience as I talk about governance at UW – Eau Claire. But before I say anything else I want to take a moment to recognize the long and distinguished service of my predecessor, Susan Harrison. Susan served you as Senate Chair for ten years, longer by far than anyone before her. Thank you, Susan, for your dedication and hard work.
Quite a few people, Susan and myself included, believe that we need to change the way governance works at UW – Eau Claire. You may have heard that I once told the Senate I wanted to be its Chair so that I could blow it up. Now I’m not really a terrorist; I’m just an English professor. But I do think that our governance could do a better job of enabling academic excellence than it does today.
What’s wrong with our governance? We’re used to thinking of ourselves as a terrific university. Not long ago we were considered the best comprehensive university in the UW System. Whether we still are is debatable – but I know that we will slip for sure unless we engage in a deliberate program of continuous improvement. As Bob Dylan said, if you aren’t busy being born, you’re busy dying. And while our governance certainly keeps busy, which direction is it facing?
Tradition is a powerful temptation. We have been so good for so long, it’s easy to be complacent. After all, our excellent faculty and staff, doing what they do best, working with first-rate students in progressive programs, established our well-known hallmarks of excellence. For example, we did not need nimble governance, nor a Strategic Plan, to tell the Chemistry Department to pursue collaborative research with students back in the early 1980s. We became a great institution because we had visionaries among our faculty and staff, people who are the best at what they do, and who do it with a remarkable level of cooperation and dedication. These assets are still characteristic of UWEC.
But, to paraphrase Dylan again, times are changing. We serve a different citizenry, teach a different student body, face greater challenges, contend with more global influences, suffer a more hostile political environment, and claim a smaller share of resources, than we knew twenty years ago. And not only did everything just seem simpler – no one ever expected us to prove that what we were doing was effective.
That was then. Today, the global stakes are much higher, while our resources are much more restricted. We send our graduates out into a world where many people appear ignorant of the difference between ideology and science, or between belief and reason. We cannot ethically allow students to cling to the notion that their future is only about getting and spending. We don’t want them to become the last generation on the planet. Yet we cannot afford to do everything we would like to do. So we have to make choices – sustainable choices. We have to become more intentional, more mindful, and take more risks. And we need a responsive, flexible, creative system of governance to help us make those hard choices.
It has become obvious to many of us that UW – Eau Claire is not a place that embraces change. Now I honestly don’t think we are really afraid of change, but we sure look like we are. Our systems seem designed to make significant change almost impossible. We’ve set up impediments that protect the status quo and stifle creativity. We don’t adjust readily, we don’t improvise very well. Too often, our answer is “No, that’s now how we do things at Eau Claire.” Too often, we protect what we have, preserve what’s comfortable, perpetuate what we’ve done before. We just keep getting in our own way. If you need an example, how many times have we tried to fix GE? And yet we muddle along, with the same old governance, a governance so timid and ineffectual that most of you hardly pay attention to it.
But we can fix this. Instead of thwarting each other, we can challenge ourselves, and design a kind of governance that keeps us busy being born. It’s not only our students who need lifelong growth and learning. We could create a sustainable culture of intellectual vitality, a sustainable university. If you want the kind of governance that trusts the best instincts of excellent people, that encourages and empowers instead of stifling and stalling, if you want us to accept new challenges, risk new approaches, invent new forms of academic engagement, and help us get out of our own way, you can’t stand off to the side. It’s time to step up.