Welcome, GRCC faculty, to Fall 2014! A special welcome if you’re new to our college – now your college, too.
We were climbing a mountain; it seemed like a hundred years. From a distance, the path was clear and the mountain small. We knew who we were, the way and its power, and our vision was sharp.
Who are we now? We’re much, much, much bigger and considerably more diverse in every sense of the word. We have layers and silos of administration, scores of programs, hundreds of different courses, thousands of computers and dozens of buildings, all of which need maintenance. We have hundred million dollar budgets, six figured full-time faculty, cadres of financially precarious adjunct faculty, clerical staff, and custodians, and a quarter million dollar president.
All of that comes in ones and zeros – of course, we’re more than digits and data. But we’re many and scattered, so how can we possibly know who we are? Most of us don’t know each other. We amass for a group snapshot – smile! – yet how few faces we recognize. Each day is driven by the tasks at hand. Amid the chatter, our unblinking Cyclops screens, and critical demands for attention, it’s easy to expend ourselves just keeping balance, losing all sense of identity, nature, and soul.
What is our way, our path? It’s as if the mountain has grown and changed around us – it surely has. Up close on the mountain, instead of seeing it from some vague distance, there’s fog and rock in every direction. It’s easier to track back down to the bottom line than crane our necks and pick our way to some could-be pointy thing at the top. Manage labor; we can’t afford more full time faculty, only a powerless army of adjuncts – those are paths of vulnerability, insecurity and subordination that lead to poor quality. Those are cold paths of control and numbers.
Those paths, the antitheses of collaboration and creativity, require only the forced obedience of a bulldozer. If you don’t follow it, it may run you into the ground. There will be no risk-taking off the path to find other routes, no adventure, no exploration, no protests, no challenges to authority, no leaps of faith, and few if any rewards. Mouths will be closed except to feign or cloy assent. We’ll remain dedicated to our students, but not so much to GRCC, to a unified faculty, or to each other. Unions, those historic assurances of equal bargaining power and fair labor relations, both the sources of and the reasons for hope and solidarity, will be foul words to many. “Right to Work” joy riders can enjoy the tyranny of representation without taxation, inverting a slogan of the original Tea Party. What pointy thing at the top of the mountain? All there is up there are wind and clouds. Keep your head down and your feet on the ground.
The best path for countless West Michigan students has been, and may always be, Grand Rapids Community College, a great education at the lowest price. However, a typical student’s route is rockier than it used to be, having shifted from Good & Plenty® post-graduation jobs to a job market in which nothing is guaranteed but years of tuition debt. Our door is still open, but it can slam on your fingers and trap you in poverty for years.
Knowing ourselves and a route to take are musts; we also need a vision of where to go. It can’t be tunnel vision to bore through rock nor foggy vision plowed by subjugation. Where are we headed and why? Put aside the $, the #, and the platitudes. In my imagination, I see our college as a place not just for students, but for all employees, to be free – no, to be encouraged – to question, to challenge, and to experiment. In my imagination, students and employees, with as minimal guidance as possible, are trusted to figure out what the problems are and solve them. (Remember our Academic Summit?) In my imagination, I see the elation of discovery and the value of conflict and failure, not fear of them. In my imagination, students can’t wait to get to class and employees can’t wait to get to work. In my reality, though – I see people nodding heads and counting beans.
In my imaginary GRCC vision, the bottom line is not a number. It’s a vision for and of people and relationships in which the journeys, not the grades and not the scores, mean everything. In that vision, student learning and employee success are formed on personal bonds. Without that, we’ll fail no matter how hard we work. See, for example, this past Sunday’s New York Times article, “Teaching Is Not a Business” at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/17/opinion/sunday/teaching-is-not-a-business.html?ref=opinion&_r=1 .
It seems like we’ve been on this mountain for a hundred years, but usually, understandably, we’re focused on the stuff of the moment in our own little speck of space. We’re not likely to hear anyone at a Board of Trustees meeting talking about our country’s perpetual war or our Cool City’s grandly rapid increase in poverty (http://www.businessinsider.com/cities-poverty-soaring-2014-8?op=1 ). Rather, it’s all about the here and now. We have shiny renovations, the sweat and toil of a vacationless summer. Full-time faculty have a fairly new evaluation system, not beloved, that spells out the least they have to do, tied to a hard-to-understand pay structure to save the college money. We have, for the fourth year running, fewer students and fewer, yet more impoverished, adjunct faculty. We have fanfare for new full-time faculty* while other faculty and employees quietly trickle away. We’ll hire a new provost (whose office, someone decided, will be relocated near the college president, far from most students and faculty). We’ll have elections this fall for two GRCC board trustees. We’ll have a presidential visit; no one can smile like the Carters. We’ll have a gala, a hoopla, a grand lollapalooza. And we should indeed celebrate our centennial moments. GRCC has permeated my entire life; I raise my glass high.
If the moments begin to wear on us, if the hoopla turns into a glob of slop, if the day seems like a century that – to be coarse – kind of sucks . . . then let’s be patient. Take the long view. Instead of seizing the day, let it go. Chat with a colleague, a student or some other stranger. Think of 1914. Or 2114.
A hundred years hence, who will know the names of Arthur Andrews, Marinus Swets, and so many, many others, much less remember them? What would they think of us? Where will we go and how will we get there? Will we know not who we are? Will we wander lost and blind? Ah, but if we do, how very good that can be! For being lost can lead to humility and, even better, to hope. Without hope, what future do any of us have?
My hope for this year, for now and the next century for all of us, is anagnorisis – a gift from the ancient Greeks – in which, having lost our sight, we see clearly, finding our way, learning ourselves.
Fred van Hartesveldt
Faculty Association President.
*Since last year 52 full-time positions have been filled, almost all tenure-track. These are not an increase in the number of tenure track positions; they are old positions not posted as tenure track during the last contract negotiations. Six more tenure track positions remain to be filled.