UNIVERSITY CONVOCATION | Chair Ford's Speech
Monday, August 22
Weill Hall, GMC
Refreshments and socializing
Dr. Ben Ford
Chair of the Faculty
9:05 - 9:35
Dr. Judy Sakaki
President of the University
9:35 - 9:45
Presentation of the Excellence in Teaching Awards
9:45 - 10:00
Dr. Jeronima (Jeri) Echeverria
Interim Provost/Vice President of Academic Affairs
10:00 - 10:30
Jesse Bengson, Felicia Kalker, Owen Anfinson, Shannon Benine,
Armand Gilinsky/Sandra Newton, Rhianna Casesa
10:30 - 10:35
Ms. Emily Hinton
President, Associated Students
10:35 - 10:40
Ms. Katie Musick
Staff Representative to the Senate
10:40 - 11:00
Dr. Elaine Newman
Chapter President, California Faculty Association
11:00 - 11:30
Dr. Ben Ford
Chair of the Faculty
School of Arts and Humanities
Schroeder Hall, 2:30 - 4:00, receptiion 4:00 - 6:00
School of Business and Economics
Schulz 3001, 1:00
School of Education
Schulz 1121, 1:00 - 3:00
School of Extended and International Education
NH 166, 1:00 - 3:00
School of Science and Technology
Darwin Lobby/Darwin 103, 3:00 - 5:00
School of Social Sciences
Darwin 107, 2:00 - 4:00
Going too fast for myself I missed
more than I think I can remember
almost everything it seems sometimes
and yet there are chances that come back
that I did not notice when they stood
where I could have reached out and touched them
this morning the black shepherd dog
still young looking up and saying
Are you ready this time
(Turning, W. S. Merwin, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/05/16/turning-w-s-merwin)
Laurie Mattinson in Sponsored Programs Administration sent me that W.S. Merwin poem, Turning, after I opened my convocation address 5 years ago with a poem about unexpectedness.
Are you ready this time?
I’m happy to announce that there are still many of us in the room with an understanding of the DNA of Sonoma State, and I’m very confident that our new permanent and interim leadership will do everything they can to support our building on that DNA to help Sonoma State University be the force that California and the World desperately need it to be. So, what is that?
You know, I had three hours worth of things I wanted to say today that included some intellectually really brilliant stuff. But Laurel—who along with the Green Music Center technical staff deserves a huge hand for organizing today’s larger-than-usual convocation—Laurel told me that I couldn’t keep you here for three hours. So I cut it all and you’ll just have to take my word for its brilliance. Instead, I have a simple message today:
- The world’s problems are many and deep and complex
- To address the world’s/California’s/Sonoma County’s problems, It will take the kinds of people who—when we’re at our best—who graduate from Sonoma State University
- To be our best will require every facet of the campus to be pulling in the same direction. That requires a shared understanding of Sonoma State’s role in the world
- And finally, we have a rare opportunity in front of us to make this shared story a reality. For most of us, such an opportunity will not come again.
Are you ready this time?
I’d like you now to take a minute and tell a neighbor one problem that you think Sonoma State exists to solve. In other words, describe one important piece of our mission.
Thank you. We’ll return to those in a bit.
I found myself despairing at times this summer over the state of the world. The hope of the Arab Spring has largely given way to renewed dictatorships and violence; the world seems hardly closer to a significant response to the threats of climate change even as species go extinct at a very high rate; our nation’s political discourse is beyond parody; the radical effect of skin color on opportunities and life experiences in this country is made clear over and over; educational opportunities in our state vary dramatically from district to district; and in our own county, a large community's trust in law enforcement is eroded when a sheriff’s deputy kills a 13 year old boy and is later promoted.
Philando Castile’s shooting in Minnesota hit particularly close for me, as he worked at an elementary school in St. Paul three blocks from my childhood home, a school where my mother once taught first grade; and the protests at the governor’s residence—still happening—are three blocks in the other direction. I visited this summer a few weeks after the shooting, and the pain is raw.
I don’t know what it’s going to take to address these problems. They are all deep and complex, and not amenable to simple technical solutions. But I submit that I do know the kinds of people it’s going to take to figure them out: people who have both a depth of understanding about some ways of solving problems and a broad appreciation for the benefits of diverse lenses on problems and on the world; people who can work well with teams to get things done; people who see what’s wrong in the world and believe they must contribute; and it will take people with a huge variety of backgrounds and experiences. In short, it will take people like Sonoma State graduates—when we’re at our best.
Our strong liberal arts and sciences foundation, coupled with outstanding professional preparation programs, gives us a unique set of strengths from which to build a new model of a public university. I talked about the rationale for the combination in my last convocation address 5 years ago, and won’t repeat it now. When we look for models, other members of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges do not provide a very good match, as they primarily replicate a small liberal arts college model. Other CSUs do not have our liberal arts core. I think it’s up to us.
Our mission is to provide education and life opportunities for “all who are prepared for and wish to participate in collegiate study.” (From the CSU mission: http://www.calstate.edu/explore/missions.shtml.) The promise of our educational ideals will not be realized until we can make those opportunities equally real regardless of students’ ethnicities, family income, or even previous educational opportunities. If they have met the CSU’s entrance requirements, we must meet them where they are and do the hard work to figure out how to fix those aspects of a Sonoma State experience that privilege some groups over others.
Are we ready this time?
High-demand campuses like ours have an easy out to the perverse incentives created by things like the legislature’s current push for increased 4-year graduation rates: We could just engineer our admissions to only admit those who are most likely to graduate in 4 years. Higher admission index, perhaps require a declared major at entrance, etc. But that route not only violates the “all who are prepared” mission; it also means we make a smaller contribution to addressing the state’s and the world’s challenges than we could. I am passionate about us finding another way.
So what’s it going to take, for Sonoma State to attract—and then educate, motivate, inspire—a student body that is representative of California or our region? President Sakaki is fond of the example of the landscaper asking a student how her day is going, and that bit of contact making all the difference in that student’s experience here. We are all in the student support business here, and we faculty fully recognize and honor the importance of what everyone here does for our students.
But to be the most powerful at achieving our vision, I think we need a shared story about our role in the world that imparts a more concrete picture than “student success and academic excellence,” much as that has to be our focus across the University. Such a story would help us avoid “majoring in the minors,” as my colleague Nick Dowdall says; we have to focus our efforts and time on what matters most.
I believe we have such a story, implicitly. It’s the DNA of the place I was talking about earlier. It encompasses an amazing variety of pretty incredible things happening here. What could possibly include all these things:
- All the varied scholarship we saw just a bit ago
- Don Romesburg’s leadership in working with many others over a period of years, culminating this summer in the inclusion of LGBT history in California’s K-12 history standards,
- Laura Watts’ research on the history of environmental protection efforts in a working landscape at Point Reyes, published this Fall by the University of California Press
- Students who worked for two years under the guidance of Jeff Baldwin and leadership of Claudia Sisomphou and in collaboration with facilities, dining services, purchasing, and many others across campus, to gather and submit data on our sustainability practices and achieve a score worthy of a bronze rating for Sonoma State from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. As President Sakaki says, this gives us a base from which to aim higher in our practices
- Extensive and expanding community partnerships under the patient guidance of Merith Weisman, such as the Sustainable City Year program with the City of Santa Rosa, led by Tim Wandling, and Francisco Vázquez and his students’ work with Latino Service Providers to study cultural practices as mental health supports
- Suzanne Rivoire’s research with both high school and undergraduate students on energy-efficient computing
- Mike Visser’s innovative behavioral economics class, one of very few in the country in which the students actually participate in and learn from real behavioral economics experiments
- Kelly Estrada’s work with local schools through the Accelerating Academic Achievement for English Learners project to profoundly impact secondary teacher education through a mentorship model
- Constantly-evolving models for library services in our “information age,” such as Caitlin Plovnick’s work at embedding information literacy and writing instruction in first-year courses across the University
I’ll have to skip the other 27 things on my list in the interest of time… I could go on for a long time. If I should have mentioned yours, I’m sure it’s on my list and I apologize for not getting to it.
But you get the picture. Partly, I’m bragging on us because I want our new administrators to begin to get a picture of the amazing work that’s happening here if you look a bit. Mostly, though, I’m asking us all to think about and contribute to a discussion about the story told by all these examples. And figure out how we could tell it in a few words, so that one can get a sense without reading a long list. That way, when we have decisions to make about what to do next, we can keep those words in mind, as a touchstone for making sure we’re working towards what matters and pulling in compatible directions.
For me, the story includes the cross-cutting themes from our strategic plan: sustainability, diversity, community engagement, global perspectives. It includes expectations of leadership, connection to place, self-initiation, and interdisciplinarity.
I think that what we provide for students is the opportunity to make the way: to make their way to this place, to make their way in this place, to make way for other people and perspectives, to make their way in the world, and ultimately to make the way for the world.
Earlier I asked you to tell a neighbor about one problem we’re here to solve. Now take two minutes and tell each other about what you hope Sonoma State’s approach to that problem looks like in 5 years.
Thank you. Don't forget that vision you've got of where we could be.
We have in front of us an opportunity as profound as any since the University’s founding to shape its future. We have a president committed to collaborative and transparent leadership, a team of interim vice presidents with amazing skills and deep knowledge and connections for making things happen in the CSU system. They can’t say “that’s not how we do it here” because they don’t have any idea how we do it here!
We have fantastic community partners in government, nonprofit, and business sectors, who all are pulling for us and SSU.
For us to take full advantage of this opportunity will require all of us to share those ideas about our purpose and how we achieve it. Provost Echeverria has agreed to continue our occasional series of lunchtime conversations about these ideas, open to faculty, staff, administrators, and students. I’ll send announcements out to all faculty and staff and to student leadership, and invite you to join us about once a month.
The next few years will not be easy nor always smooth. Resources are limited, and decision-makers will be under significant pressure from different directions. As a faculty body, we are desperately in need of permanent faculty hires, having seen the dependence on lecturer faculty, with no job security, grow alarmingly in the past 10 years. I know many other areas around campus are feeling similar workload crunches.
Having a shared story about our purpose will allow more work to get done by our large networks without hierarchical direction, through our front porch conversations and coordination that Margie Purser talked about a few years ago. As Sonoma State has gotten bigger, the administrative complexity has grown, and one way to have more people doing the direct work that accomplishes our mission is to need fewer person-hours directing that work. And the only way for that to happen is if we’re all pulling in the same direction. If we can get the work done with less direction, administration can provide more support, encouragement, and facilitation—the kind of leadership that helps large linked networks like a University be most effective.
My sister Sara was recently laid up for many weeks by a bad concussion caused by a bad-hop softball to the face (softballs are poorly named). In some reflections on her forced idleness, she included this:
The communities we intentionally build, in environments that allow them to thrive, really can hold us above water. For me, this is the case at [my work, my gym], among my friends, and in my family. In all four of those cases, communities have been built and nurtured through hard, often uncomfortable work, commitment, and dedication that persists through hard times and easy ones. I cannot say this about every community to which I have belonged. These communities do not happen without effort, and they cannot thrive in every environment.
—Sara Ford, 8/18/16 private email
You might be able to tell that I’m rather passionate about this place and its role in the world. I hope the kind of community-building work my sister described can happen in every corner of campus; for me, my amazing department is my core community here. We need to build those communities, and build them around our shared mission.
Are you ready this time? I believe that we are. In fact, I believe we're champing at the bit and can't wait to get started.
I’ll close with one stanza from the book-length poem Remains by a young California poet, Jesús Castillo. I commend the entire volume to you.
If the instructions say to leave the comfort of whatever
we call home to rebuild our language piece by piece
in streets that don't know us, let me grab my coat.
I've packed a lunch. We can eat it outside, by the river,
and watch the vapor of our social dreams receding
from the skyline. In this place that's spinning
round the sun, I have walked to your door and called
your name. I've held you on the ledges of tall buildings
and searched for your hair in crowds of insane actors
playing with fire under blinking satellites and singing
of how strange it is to be.
Have a strange and wonderful year, and be part of shaping Sonoma State’s future!