Guest Post: Conversation, Change, and Compromise at Western Michigan University

by Alexander M. Cannon, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Music History/Ethnomusicology
Western Michigan University College of Fine Arts

When I started teaching three years ago, I was struck by the energy and drive of my colleagues in the College of Fine Arts. They grounded their teaching, research, grant writing, and committee-driven initiatives in their understanding of the many communities in which they operated. An attention to community, it seemed, helped them react nimbly to change, and I immediately wanted to take part in their plans to improve the college and university. However, the realities of institutional inertia soon set in, where fractures within the university community prevented implementation.

Provost Timothy Greene’s recent decision concerning the contract of Dean Alex Enyedi and the resulting WMU-AAUP “no confidence” vote shed a particular light on the ruptures on campus that prevent flexibility and improvement at WMU. I write, therefore, to refute the claims that the WMU-AAUP vote emerged simply from the Provost’s decision not to renew Dean Enyedi’s contract and that only faculty from the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) share concerns for the Provost’s approach to governance. [1] The recent actions of the Provost and the WMU-AAUP serve as a catalyst for conversation about systemic barriers to effective dialogue and governance at WMU, but I worry that this conversation has waned in recent days. As a faculty, we can no longer retreat into our research and teaching but must tackle the fraught realities of shared governance and rebuild a culture of stewardship at WMU. I therefore offer the following comments on leadership, long-term planning and assessment, and sustainability; to conclude, I propose three questions that I hope will guide future conversations in public and private forums.


Effective leadership is a matter of charisma — not the charisma used in everyday conversation as a stand-in term for outgoing, popular, and entertaining or the transcendent powers attributed to certain historical figures. I mean the charisma of the engaged leader who identifies present problems, provides the logic for seeing these problems in multifaceted ways, and implements effective solutions to overcoming these problems with the full support of those around the leader. Charisma, therefore, is not leadership through directive; charisma is leadership through continuous engagement with a community.

The leadership style described by Provost Greene in a letter to CAS faculty following the dismissal of Dean Enyedi does not seem to align with this model. Provost Greene writes:

Leadership is fostered in the trust between managers. A senior leader, in this case a provost, must be able to trust that a dean will do what has been agreed upon without fail. Quite simply put, when any manager acts in opposition to a leadership directive, that person would normally expect to no longer be a member of the management team. [2]

Deans are told to implement decisions based on the presumed authority of the provost; are the deans meant to quell individual expression for fear of losing their positions and, ultimately, their abilities to bring positive change? Does this have ramifications on individual expression for me and other faculty members? In addition, trust does not exist a priori to one’s engagement with the leader; trust must be forged and organized as a two-way street. Trusting one’s subordinate to implement policy without requiring the subordinate to trust the “senior manager” to engage and, more importantly, listen to concerns, is troubling.

Long-term Planning and Assessment

Planning is no easy task, and there is much to be lauded about the Western Michigan University Strategic Plan. As indicated in the most recent Strategic Plan Mid-Year Report, there are initiatives underway to improve student retention, student diversity, and student engagement with the local community. [3] It appears, however, that some suggestions for improving certain short-term problems are rather generic and lack diversity. To increase federal research expenditures by faculty, the report suggests increasing “research for community benefit.” [4] How, specifically, is this possible when federal grant money is decreasing? [5] Why do the five suggested projects only involve business and science research? [6] The Mid-Year Report also indicates ways to improve the six-year graduation rate, including “foster University’s reputation” with a specific suggestion to “implement new university homepage and key supporting pages.”[7] Why not tackle both research funding and reputation by encouraging faculty to collaborate across disciplines to generate new projects to be presented at prestigious conferences? Sustained engagement between the Provost’s Office and the faculty will yield many more ways to tackle these issues raised in the strategic plan.

The long term also must be considered seriously. The Mid-Year Report only suggests items for the 2015–2020 strategic plan. [8] We need to look beyond 2020 and consider where the university will be in 2050 or 2060. If the university has a series of long-term goals in mind—as opposed to long-term approaches of being learner centered, discovery driven, and globally engaged—the university can tackle assessment of programs better. I realize that assessment is not popular and very time intensive; however, with clear and established descriptions of why assessments are needed to build the identity and reputation of WMU, faculty will better appreciate the positive outcomes of assessment. Lack of clarity generates opposition and fear; this undermines methods of improving the university environment.


Long-term planning requires a model. WMU has been recognized recently as a leader in environmental sustainability. This appears to be a result, in part, of the fifth WMU strategic goal, namely to “[a]dvance social, economic, and environmental sustainability practices and policies.” [9] I also perceive WMU governance, however, as driven by numbers and rewarding of positive percentages. I therefore encourage the Provost’s Office and others to adopt a wider model of university-level sustainability to re-root WMU in the communities of western Michigan. “Sustainability,” writes Tom Kelly, the Chief Sustainability Officer at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), “is fundamentally about education because it continually presents questions of value and practice by asking what is best and why, for the long run.” [10]

I draw inspiration for sustainability models from two sources: first from the model of the “sustainable learning community” undertaken by UNH and second from current research on musical sustainability. In the UNH model, Kelly advocates sustainability as “a practical ideal that must be worked out on the ground, concretely and in synch with the rhythms of day-to-day life.” [11] Sustainability advances a bottom-up approach with attunement to student, faculty, staff, and community needs. Kelly describes the model in the following terms:

The sustainable learning community model focuses on four key systems that underpin the ability of a community or society to define and pursue quality of life: biodiversity and ecosystems, climate and energy, food and society, and culture and sustainability. These are integrated as educational initiatives focused on institutional practices across what we refer as the core functions of the university: curriculum, operations, research, and engagement (CORE). Together, the four systems and the CORE create the basis for building a global sustainability outlook by supporting educational innovations that cultivate perspectives that we have defined as “Earth system,” “citizen of the world,” “public health practitioner,” and “engaged intellectual.” [12]

The model proposes clear methods to craft the perspectives of members of the community and then outlines clear outcomes for students—they graduate with these perspectives and prepared for specific types of careers.

Western Michigan University does not exist at the intersection of the same kinds of communities as the University of New Hampshire; therefore, adopting UNH’s model verbatim is not the best course of action. Here, I draw from musical sustainability to propose a plan for pursuing a large-scale WMU sustainability model. Ethnomusicologist Jeff Todd Titon draws on theories of how ecosystems sustain themselves and argues that four principles guide sustainable environments. [13] “Diversity” is the first principle and enables the maintenance of a body of knowledge and solutions upon which to draw when new challenges arise. “Limits to growth” is the second and prevents the environment from getting too large and crowding out necessary resources for the entire system to use. Attunement to “interconnectivity” is the third principle and indicates that certain self-correcting mechanisms be established to allow the environment to assimilate new ideas and adapt to change. “Stewardship” is the final principle; good management in a sustainable environment involves a ground-level perspective to “care…for something not owned.” [14]

WMU leadership is well attuned to the necessity of diversity, although more work still needs to be done in that area. Limits to growth, attunement to interconnectivity, and stewardship need to be addressed by the entire university community. Models of sustainability do not mix well with growth; undertaking both sustainability and growth—something WMU seems to pursue now—yields neither. Interconnectivity must be fostered between the different units, and structures, including permanent assessment models, should be put in place to foster this interconnectivity. Finally, leaders of a university do not own the university but are entrusted with the significant responsibility of maintaining the institution for future generations. We must have stewards in our administrative positions.


We need to continue conversations recent events have started. To begin our dialogue, I respectfully implore the Provost’s Office to reconsider its approach to interacting with the university community and to adopt the values meant to guide the university: lead but also learn; direct, but also discover; enforce, but also engage. I also respectfully implore faculty to espouse the same values and play a more active role in shared responsibility for the university. To do so, I suggest that we organize a series of open forums to discuss the following questions:

What is leadership at an institution of higher education?

I call for dialogue about leadership and not for the dismissal of any WMU administrator. Leadership must be built on trust between the leaders and the community. All leaders at WMU—this includes administrators, faculty teaching in classrooms, managers, and student leaders—must craft an atmosphere of stewardship and effective engagement with the concerns of the community.

What is the proper balance of long-term planning and assessment?

Proper balance emerges from sustained communication between the administration, faculty, staff, and students as we determine our collective strategic plans and implement permanent assessment models.

What are the benefits of pursing sustainability, as opposed to growth, as our guiding model?

WMU has the potential to make large-scale sustainability a model to guide the development of programs, the revision of curricula, and the recruitment of successful students. We should not aim to grow at this point; with declining high-school graduation rates in Michigan, we should consider equilibrium a success. This equilibrium should involve stable matriculation rates and improved graduation rates for at least the next ten to fifteen years. When forecasts indicate that high-school graduation rates will increase in Michigan, we can consider a shift to a model that involves proactively tackling growth.

We are here because we give students, the community, and each other the tools to build our collective future. Let us all work together and guide one another to help Western Michigan University reach its true potential.

Respectfully submitted,

Alexander M. Cannon, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Music History/Ethnomusicology
WMU College of Fine Arts


[1] WMU spokeswoman Cheryl Roland recently claimed that “[a]n overwhelming majority of those who voted [in the “no confidence” vote] were from the College of Arts and Sciences.” (See Julie Mack, “Western Michigan University faculty union issues official ‘no confidence’ vote against Provost Tim Greene,”, February 4, 2015). Here Mack subsequently reports that 59.4% of participants in the first ballot and 54.04% in the revised ballot indicated they were in the College of Arts and Sciences; “overwhelming majority” is not applicable in this case and using such language, in essence, silences the opinions of 40% or more of faculty at WMU.

[2] WMU Provost Timothy Greene, letter to faculty and staff of the College of Arts and Sciences, January 29, 2015.

[3] Jody Brylinsky and Brynne Belinger, Western Michigan University Strategic Plan Mid-Year Report, WMU Office of Institutional Effectiveness, January 14, 2015.

[4] Brylinski and Belinger, p. 8.

[5] “NSF study shows decline in federal funding for research and development,” National Science Foundation, January 15, 2014.

[6] In the College of Fine Arts, there are fewer opportunities for large institutional grants, but there are large grants available, such as the National Endowment for the Arts “Our Town” grant. There also are grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities available; therefore, an attunement to a more diverse variety of research awards and grants will help WMU maintain funding for our programs.

[7] Brylinski and Belinger, p. 7.

[8] Brylinski and Belinger, pp. 15-18.

[9] Western Michigan University Strategic Plan 2012–2015.

[10] Tom Kelly, “Sustainability as an Organizing Principle for Higher Education,” in The Sustainable Learning Community: One University’s Journey to the Future, ed. John Aber, Tom Kelly, and Bruce Mallory (Durham, New Hampshire: University of New Hampshire Press, 2009), 1.

[11] Kelly, p. 1.

[12] Kelly, p. 2.

[13] Jeff Todd Titon, “Music and Sustainability: An Ecological Viewpoint,” The World of Music 51.1 (2009): 123–124.

[14] Titon, p. 124.