by Lisa C. Minnick, WMU-AAUP President |
It’s been a year since the Presidential Search Advisory Committee began the work that resulted in the hiring of President Montgomery, whose inauguration we celebrated last week. President Montgomery, I am pleased to have this opportunity to welcome you officially on behalf of the WMU-AAUP, whose membership comprises the 900 members of the Board-appointed faculty in its entirety.
Last fall, the Presidential Search Advisory Committee met with faculty, staff, students, alumni, administrators, and community members to listen to their perspectives on the opportunities and challenges faced by Western Michigan University and, by extension, its next president. We asked them to describe the characteristics they thought the next president would need in order to succeed at making the most of the opportunities and addressing the challenges. We used what they told us to draft the position announcement and description of the characteristics and qualifications the university community wanted in its next president.
Despite the diverse needs and interests of these constituencies, I was surprised to hear the same themes repeatedly: WMU has the raw materials and is poised for greatness, but we need a leader who can help us get there. We need a leader who can help us make the most of our resources, the strongest and most valuable of which is of course our people. We need a leader who can help us build on our strengths, develop where we have been languishing, and realize our potential. We will all be on board for this journey, they said, but we need a leader who has the vision to help us figure out who we are, who we aspire to be, how to get there, and – critically – how to tell our story so the rest of the world will see what we see.
The repetition of these themes in conversation after conversation was striking. It made our charge simultaneously easier – because everyone wants the same thing! hooray! – and more difficult: How do we find someone with the skills, talent, experience, and energy to lead us in the colossal project we are setting out for ourselves? Is there actually a real person out there who can meet these standards? Can we find someone who can lead us effectively in the difficult work of crafting and articulating a collective vision for the university? Someone who can lead us to achieve our shared aspirations? Someone who can help us tell our story?
Obviously the ending of that particular story is already well known. We are very fortunate to have found a new president who is clearly more than prepared to do all those things. This is an exciting time for the university and for all of us who are part the enterprise.
Now that we are a few weeks into the academic year, and the inaugural festivities and the flurry and chaos of the beginning of the academic year are behind us, it seems like a good time to pause for a moment and think about the challenge of telling our story.
The phrase “tell our story” appears repeatedly in the notes I kept from the conversation sessions last fall and in my notes from meetings of the search committee itself. At the time, and again in reviewing these notes over the past few weeks, the idea of “telling our story” is one of the themes that stands out most for me.
I’m an English professor, so I could probably get away with saying that stories are my business. But I’m not a creative writer or a literature professor, so by that definition, stories are not actually my business. Still, as I was preparing Monday morning to teach my class in the history of the English language, I was reminded again not only that this course is built from a series of stories that I use to help students figure out why the language is the way it is, how it got to be that way, and what causes language to change over time, but really that all my classes are built around stories. I use stories to help make sense of things like how language variation is distributed, how and why people attach value to different ways of speaking, and what a phoneme is and why that definition can be so hard to make sense of. So, I’m going to claim it: Teaching and doing research in linguistics is storytelling. Stories are therefore my business.
But they’re everyone else’s business too. My faculty colleagues are all storytellers as well. This is true across disciplines. We all learn from the stories of the researchers, scholars, artists, and teachers who came before us. We build on these stories – and sometimes we change them: that’s discovery – and we share them with our students and colleagues. This is how knowledge is transmitted and continually generated and regenerated. It is a remarkable thing, this work we professors are engaged in.
Of course you can see where this is going. Storytelling is central not only to our academic mission but to our culture, and to every culture. Stories are how we go about figuring out the world – to the extent that any of us ever really figures it out – and telling stories is how we try to explain the world to others even as they use stories to figure it out for themselves and try to explain it to us. And when I say “we,” I don’t just mean professors. I mean human beings.
But even while my creative writing colleagues and students in the English department inspire me with their talent for creating compelling, original stories, we have to recognize that no story is made up out of whole cloth. All stories are ultimately built on and made of other stories.
This is all a long way of saying that the story of Western Michigan University belongs to all of us: students, faculty, staff, administration, alumni, members of the Board, retired faculty and staff colleagues, members of the community, and everyone else who cares about this institution. That means to tell the story of Western Michigan University is to tell our collective story. And that is something that cannot be done – at least, it can’t be done right – without a deliberate, intentional effort to listen to the stories of all us. Because that is the story.
What everyone told us last fall during the search suggests that we have been at a loss for a way to define ourselves and a way to tell the story of what makes Western Michigan University the special place we all know it is. I submit that much of this loss is a consequence of an unwillingness to listen. When the stories of people, of constituencies, and of academic disciplines are told by people who themselves have not listened to the people whose stories these rightly are, assumptions are made, people may be written off, and harmful decisions are sometimes made.
There is no possibility of a collective, collaborative enterprise achieving its full potential under those circumstances.
So I hope that with the new administration, we can start over. I hope we can do a better job of listening to one another, of respecting people enough to listen to them and to believe them when they tell their own stories.
On what may seem like but is not an unrelated note, I will add that I appreciate that the Board has ratified the new contract. I have mixed feelings about the contract although nothing but respect for my bargaining team, whose meticulous preparation and scrupulously professional conduct at the bargaining table throughout a long and grueling negotiation cycle sets an excellent example for how academic collective bargaining at Western Michigan University ought to be conducted.
I am concerned about the changes to our healthcare plan, including what are likely to be for many of my colleagues unsustainable increases to their out of pocket costs beginning in January. While I appreciate that the cost-of-living increases in the new contract are likely to keep pace with inflation, which would be better of course if we were not losing so much ground on healthcare, I am also concerned about the loss of benefits at the Sindecuse Health Center and Unified Clinics. Added to the already worrisome changes to our insurance costs, this is a substantial additional hit. As always, these changes will disproportionately affect colleagues on the lower end of the salary scale, but new this time is that those who are the sickest will pay the most. In sum, these changes are going to make people’s lives harder.
I wish that before we got to this point their stories had been sought out and listened to by the people who control the resources on this campus, and that is you all, ladies and gentlemen of the board, along with your administrative agents.
Prior to President Montgomery’s arrival, there was a tendency to dismiss or try to ignore stories that did not square with the administration’s official line. That kind of thing can damage any institution, and it has. In the spirit of a fresh start with our new president, I am asking all of you to join me in trying a different approach this time, one in which the stories of all the people who do the work of this institution are sought out, listened to, valued, and taken to heart.
Thank you for listening.