William and Mary
Geoff Feiss
Geoff Feiss

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Provost (July, 2003 - June, 2009)

Archived Blogger

End of semester thoughts

May 1, 2009 by

On spring days with my office windows open in the Brafferton, I can hear the bell of the Wren Building chime the hour.  This is less charming than it sounds at first since the antiquated heating system in the Brafferton (built in 1723) has two settings – on or off – and we don’t turn it off until the threat of the last cold nights has receded.  So we open our windows wide, weather permitting and pine pollen notwithstanding.  Charming and venerable has its burdens.

Anyway, I was talking about the bell atop the Wren.  Once a year, today, the regular rhythm of the bells is broken by a wonderful tradition that allows each senior, as he or she completes their last class, to ascend to the third floor of the Wren Building, take hold of the bell rope, and make a joyful noise unto the world.  We even allow retiring faculty to do the same at their annual retirement dinner – and I got to do so just last week.

So, today the bell tolls all day and marks for most seniors, and me, our last days at William and Mary.  For the seniors, there will be a lot of bitter/sweet and well-deserved partying.  For me, this is even a bit more nostalgic since I mark the end of an academic career that began 48 falls ago – the day I first stepped on the campus of my undergraduate university as a student.  Imagine those distant days.  Phones had cords, music came in 33 1/3 rpm vinyl discs, John Kennedy had just become president, computers were to be found only in the basement of the Engineering Quad, and there were no photocopying machines.  In fact, it now occurs to me, that 48 years ago this weekend, in all likelihood, my father and I drove  to the university that I was to attend to buy the dorm room furniture of my former Boy Scout troop leader who was graduating.   Princeton did not furnish dorm rooms in that distant age.

I have never strayed far from campus; in fact when I retire and move, I will still be only three blocks from a university campus.  Obviously, from my viewpoint, there is something to like about universities.  Much is obvious: libraries, concerts and stimulating lectures on all subjects, athletic events, really smart people, lovely places to walk and relax, coffee shops — youth and promise and vigor and laughter and idealism and energy abounding.  But these things are found elsewhere; certainly in any big city you can put together the same package of attractions, though maybe not within the confines of a few  tens of acres.  But find them you can.  For me, personally, there is something far more important.  It is a thing much harder for many outside the academy to understand and, sometimes, something they do not want to understand.

This intangible “other” within universities that made me never leave is this: we play with fire.  Not literal fire, but intellectual fire.  When I was little, the perfect formula for my misbehavior was for an adult to forbid it.  Just as Ralphie’s lust for a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-Shot, Range Model Air Rifle is only furthered by adult warnings that he will “shoot his eye out,” humans seem to need danger.  They climb rocks, fly in hot-air balloons, drive too fast, live on floodplains, eat fried food.  I mostly hang out on college campuses where dangerous, scary, iconoclastic, sacrilegious, and politically unsettling ideas are talked about in the open.  These ideas are always talked about somewhere, but more often through history in garrets and basements out of sight of those in power and at literal risk to life, reputation, and fortune.  In the modern university, we talk about them in the safe place that is the campus.  If we do it well, this goes well – we are civil to one another, treat each other with a modicum of respect, and require that all ideas be tested.  If we do it badly, someone gets their ideas drowned out by the majority or a vocal minority, they are left feeling diminished (indeed, of course, we all are), and some ideas go untested in the intellectual fires.

This is what I love about universities above all else.  They can be raucous, noisy, querulous, and cranky.  They won’t leave well enough alone.  They act as society’s intellectual safety valve, testing ground, and seed bed for new ideas or old ones whose time has come again.  They annoy, offend, and nag according to rules of civility and open discourse.  No one is required to attend; but everyone is obligated to listen to one another and arrive at their own conclusions.

I love that as much as I loved my Red Ryder BB gun.

Rhythms

March 13, 2009 by

The College’s blog tsarina reminded me today that it has been three months since I last posted anything.  I had told her early on to remind me when I was a blogslacker – and she has.

Today is the last day of Spring Break at the College.  So, it’s a bit quieter than usual and, actually it doesn’t feel much like spring – unless you live in Seattle.  But the sense that this is the quiet before the storm since everyone returns to campus on Sunday makes me reflect a bit on the rhythms of academic life.

I am an authority on this subject.  In fall of 1948 I was carted off to my first day of kindergarten (private, half-day since the Commonwealth of Virginia did not have public kindergarten in those benighted days) and I have been going to school every fall ever since.  That’s sixty-one years.  Clearly there is a significant failure of imagination here.

The year begins with a clean slate, lots of expectations and promise, and the belief in the possible.  By March, however, too many deadlines, too many events, too many distractions, some victories and disappointments leave everyone a bit worn around the edges.  But, we all must take a deep breath because the truth is that half of the year’s work gets done in the last half of March and, especially, April.

For everyone on campus, there are looming deadlines.  Finals lurk over the horizon, last concerts and exhibitions, honors and term papers, theses and dissertations, manuscripts to get off before the summer arrives and student assistants evaporate, grant proposals due.  Strategic plans are due, awards to be given and citations written, retirement dinners, and, oh yes, what about housing for next year, arrangements for that semester abroad, and finding that summer job, if there are any out there, that you’ve been putting off.  Every committee must finish its work because next September, most of the members will be doing something else.

So, now we tighten our seat belts, put our tray tables and seat backs in the full upright position and await a safe landing at Commencement in two months.

T.S. Elliot had the soul of an academic when he wrote:

APRIL is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers…. (The Waste Land)

Who's in charge here anyway?

December 4, 2008 by

The other day, I was a guest in a class on higher education administration. Because I was the last in a distinguished list of guests to the class, the subject left unexamined was “the challenges and opportunities of academic governance.” Seems simple enough; not so.

Academic governance sometimes gets mapped onto faculty governance, though they are not the same thing. Faculty governance is the realm of delegated authority from the university’s governing board, in W&M’s case the gubernatorially appointed Board of Visitors. This authority is delegated to the faculty via the president, the provost, and the deans. Such decisions as hiring, promotion, and tenure of faculty, the curriculum, academic status of students, and the criteria for, as well as the approval of, earned degrees are in this realm. In any great university, these matters are the near-exclusive prerogative of the faculty and the faculty jealously guard and safeguard these rights and privileges. These are serious matters of great substance; they define the university’s standards and, ultimately, determine who may call themselves faculty, student, or graduate.

Academic governance is more complex, refering to shared governance among the faculty, administration, students, governing board, and intensely interested parties like alumni, donors, parents, volunteers, and politicians. It holds that academic institutions are not mini-totalitarian or rogue states wherein individuals can act unilaterally without broad consultation. Herein lies the potential for conflict and tension: who really sets the institution’s priorities; who distributes the rewards; who gets to articulate the institution’s core values; who decides what?

I guess the answer to that latter question is that in the academic shared governance model at some level everyone gets to decide – or at least participate in the decision-making to some degree. We may decide that we don’t agree, but we do reach a decision. The art in this is to apply a reasonable filter as to which decisions require a shared process for action and which decisions can we agree should be made independently, though with accountability, within the context of mutually determined basic principles?

Embedded in shared governance are two key facts: 1) transparency of decision-making so that everyone knows when decisions are being made, on the basis of what information, and by whom and 2) trust in the fact that procedures will be followed and that aggrieved parties with standing may challenge a decision without retribution.

Transparency and trust enable shared governance. The first is hard work, adds time to decision-making, and requires constant attention. It is almost always worth the effort. The latter, trust, is earned not given. It is ephemeral and delicate.

In my experience, shared governance fails by either intention or inattention. I think of these failures in the words of Willa Cather, “[t]here are only two or three great human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” Substitute “failure in shared governance” for “great human stories” and you have the crux of the matter.

But, we can learn more from our failures than we do from our successes.

Strategic Planning

November 7, 2008 by

The College of William and Mary is presently engaged in a year-long strategic planning exercise.  On a scale of one (root canal) to ten (you just won a free round-trip to Cancun), this probably feels about like a 1.3 +/- 0.25.

Strategic plans are exercises that universities (and lots of other organizations) go though periodically as a means of both clarifying their institutional priorities and engaging their constituencies in thinking about the future.  They can be mind-bogglingly complex and time-consuming and the resulting plans can read like the insert that comes with your prescription meds.  Too often the aftermath for participants is as much planning fatigue and disillusionment as enlightenment and affirmation.

So, why should anyone care that we are planning?

Reason #1: the validity of our planning is only as robust as the involvement of our students, faculty, staff, parents, alumni, and friends in the process.

Reason #2: we need everyone’s best ideas as to our strengths, our challenges, our opportunities.  What should we change; what should we NEVER change?

Reason #3: if we do this right and put in place a process that has the confidence of our community, a process that is open, transparent, and consultative, we can make sure that the College we all love will continue to thrive and prosper.

So, give us a few minutes.  Go to www.wm.edu/strategicplanning and learn what you can about the process and the timetable.

And, don’t forget to write.  There are links for sending your comments to us and we have posted the names of the Planning Steering Committee members so and you can communicate with anyone of us with your ideas and concerns.

Plan On!

A blogging provost may be the ultimate oxymoron.

October 23, 2008 by

A blogging provost may be the ultimate oxymoron – and that word does not mean an idiot with free radicals, though I have been accused of being something of that sort in the past. It may also be true that teaching a provost to blog is akin to the Mark Twain aphorism about teaching a pig to sing – “it wastes your time and annoys the pig.” We’ll see since the opportunity to reflect on my job, especially in this my last year before retirement, is just too tempting.

First, what does a provost do? The humorist Dave Barry pursued this conundrum best in a column on paying your taxes back in 2004.

…probably the most common question asked by taxpayers is: “What, exactly, am I allowed to deduct as a business expense?”

The answer depends on the type of work you do. For example, let’s say you’re a university provost. You can deduct any expense you want, because nobody has a clue what “provost” means. Legally, the IRS cannot touch you.

My accountant has not yet subscribed to this view. Provosts, when asked, like to say that the job of the president is to make speeches; the job of the faculty is to think; and the job of the provost is to keep the faculty from making speeches and the president from thinking.

Actually it is more prosaic than that: a provost is the chief academic officer of the university and my day to day work is to do whatever needs to be done to keep the academic and research mission of the College alive and well. It is a good job.

Right now, the job is a bit more daunting than usual because we are mired in very tough economic times. So, in times like these, it is critical that I, working closely with my staff, the deans, the faculty leadership, and the senior administration, keep us focused on both the excellence of what we do here at William & Mary and the rich opportunities that lie ahead for the College. So, my future postings will address these challenges and opportunities and, perhaps, muse a bit on a near forty year career in higher education – the last twenty of which has been in some form of administrative post or another. I may not have acquired wisdom (and colleagues who muse on my spending twenty years in academic administration might proffer that this alone is prima facie evidence of a complete absence of wisdom and judgment), but I at least have some interesting stories to tell.