Convocation, Fall 2012

Friday, September 28, 2012

I would like to reflect for a moment on the situation of UNF within the larger context of American higher education.  The great American research universities, some of which are as old as the colonization of the United States, really only achieved international status in the early decades of the 20th century after they had grafted the European research tradition onto the ever more esoteric pursuits of their highly focused faculties whose prowess was confirmed not by the excellence of their teaching but by the singular discoveries that resulted from their undistracted intellectual labor.   UNF, and institutions like it, have a different origin.  Many public comprehensive universities evolved from state teachers colleges, and many more were created in the latter half of the 20th-century.  The impetus in both cases was the need to accommodate the huge surge in enrollments that was precipitated initially by the post-WWII boom fueled by the GI Bill and that then was fed by the expectation that all US citizens should have local access to advanced education in order to improve their circumstances in life in accordance what traditionally is referred to as “the American dream.”  Contrary to the focus of research universities, their comprehensive counterparts traditionally have focused on the noble goal of empowering their students through dedicated teaching and enrichment.


There is no reason to believe that research and comprehensive universities won’t continue to flourish in the 21st-century as they did in the 20th, but it is also clear, as President Delaney has indicated, that the trajectories of these institutions are now being impacted if not deflected by forces made noteworthy by their intensity and more consequential by virtue of their confluence.  These forces include a precipitous decline in public support, an equally steep increase in public oversight, and the stunning proliferation of electronically mediated instruction.  Taken together, these forces are contributing to what someday in hindsight might well be confirmed to have been a full-blown paradigm shift.  In the meanwhile, they are at the very least requiring us to call into question many of the premises that we have heretofore taken for granted about the boundaries of our institutions and the inventory and delivery mode of programs that they should offer.


Fortunately, there is another force that will continue to impact the future of our institutions, and that is the force of the faculty.  While higher education is no longer regarded as a sacrosanct “black box” whose secrets are known only to its augustly credentialed practitioners, it is still very much the case that the principle of faculty ownership of the curriculum remains firmly intact.  This fact was impressed upon me one week ago when I participated in a meeting of a statewide steering committee on general education reform.  You are all aware that our general education requirement is being realigned by virtue of legislative statute.  What I trust you will be reassured to know is that the committees determining that realignment will be constituted entirely of university and state college faculty, three of our own among them, and that any changes those committees propose still will be subject to the standard review and approval of faculty governance bodies. 


On a day when we have convened for the express purpose of celebrating the achievements of some of UNF’s finest faculty, it seems especially fitting to me to reaffirm the need, never greater than at the current time, for faculty to be fully engaged in availing themselves of their longstanding right to serve as stewards of the academic programs that are at the core of their institutions.  Clearly we cannot count on tradition alone to preserve what we most value about higher education.  Instead, institutions will need to be uncharacteristically nimble if they are to respond in a wise but timely way to the rapidly evolving opportunities and challenges that distinguish early 21st-century higher education from what in retrospect are beginning to seem like the relatively tranquil decades that preceded it.  As I look at my colleagues on the stage and in the auditorium today, I am confident that UNF is in good hands.


Thank you.