PÈRE Marquette Faculty Dinner
May 3, 2012
Thank you for the introduction, Erik. And thank you for ceding the stage gracefully with no additional “slings and arrows” hurtled in the direction of the administration or other familiar targets.
With no further need to “take arms” in our defense, I can get right down to the serious business of the evening — recognizing the invaluable role played by the entire faculty of Marquette University and congratulating our awardees for receiving this university’s highest honors for teaching excellence. Please help applaud them: Mark Cotteleer, Sarah Bonewits Feldner, Jack Moyer and Rebecca Nowacek.
Awardees, it is indeed a red-letter occasion to have outstanding teaching recognized, so please enjoy tonight and cherish the respect this university community gives you this evening.
And while we’re recognizing faculty for excellence, I will echo Provost Pauly in commending this year’s recipients of our awards for distinguished scholarship — the Helen Way Klingler Fellowships and Young Scholar Awards, and the Lawrence G. Haggerty Faculty Award for Research Excellence.
My message tonight is really all about the people in this room — your role in this university that I have come to admire so deeply in the course of an academic year. So, sorry. If you were looking forward to play-by-play highlights of our fiscal performance — or the over-under on the office wing in your college being remodeled — I’m going to disappoint you.
The work of faculty at Marquette has been on my mind a great deal this semester — and not just because I’ve been teaching a class this semester on 16th century British literature.
Here’s why. More than any other factor, excellence at Marquette is defined by the high-wire act you perform every day. Only through your work as dedicated teacher-scholars is this university able to succeed as the rarest sort of institution — one where we continuously push out the horizons of knowledge in a range of academic disciplines, while reaching each of our students in a way that leaves them prepared for their careers and transformed personally.
Yes, we expect a lot of you and you deliver in spectacular fashion. In other words, you stretch. You dig in. You keep the wheels spinning late into the night.
“The faculty in my acquaintance is quite literally devoted to their work, almost obsessive about it,” wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and college writing teacher Marilynne Robinson in a recent issue of Commonweal magazine, responding to legislators demanding “accountability” from faculty in the public higher education sphere. “They go on vacation to do research. Even when they retire, they don’t retire.”
Although your devotion to your work springs from places deep inside you, what a huge mistake it would be for Marquette to take it for granted. Understanding and supporting you in your work must be a focus of our energies and of the strategic planning process that is now underway. Yesterday we had the 17th of 17 listening sessions this semester focused on strategic planning. All of the sessions have been excellent and helpful. What you and your colleagues shared about your aspirations for Marquette will form the basis for the strategic plan. In listening to what you said at the listening sessions, some common themes have emerged. What will happen next is that we’ll be compiling a synopsis of the themes to share with you. Then work on the actual plan can begin with a goal of bringing a final version to the Board of Trustees in May 2013 for approval. There will be numerous opportunities for faculty input over the next year.
It’s worth repeating what I said at all of the listening sessions: yes, a strategic plan is important for Marquette’s future, but no strategic plan will usher in Valhalla or resolve all of Marquette’s challenges. It will help guide decision making for the next 5-7 years. And it’s worth my repeating that identifying priorities by nature means that not every department or college will be a priority in the plan.
So with that process continuing in what will remain an open and collaborative way, I want to speak more personally tonight about the importance of your work.
I’ll start with research and scholarship. Marquette would not be the national university that it is, known for academic excellence, if you as faculty were not active on the frontiers of your disciplines.
Nor would it be as dynamic a learning environment. When you engage the emerging ideas of your disciplines, it enriches your work in the classroom. When you present your work at conferences and publish articles and books, you do the single most effective thing we can do to build Marquette’s reputation. For Marquette to pursue the new excellence that this community seeks, you must be supported in the entirety of this scholarly work.
And that support includes a commitment to academic freedom. Since I’ve been asked a number of times by faculty for my views on this topic, I want to assure you of my full and unequivocal support for and commitment to academic freedom. And since I’ve been asked this follow-up question as well, I want to say that a faculty member’s chosen field of research will in no way limit his or her ability to serve in the administration of this university at any level.
Now for the other half of the tightrope act: your indispensable and inspired work as teachers. You are experts in shepherding young people through a transition that defines their lives.
You help them acquire the knowledge, methods and skills they will need for what is ahead of them professionally. Yet you realize that students need more than an intellectual understanding of the adult roles they will play. They need to try them on and make them their own.
Fortunately, you work within a 500-year-old Catholic and Jesuit tradition that encourages and celebrates your work as molders of minds and shapers of souls. In her Commonweal article, Marilynne Robinson writes:
The intellectual model for most of the older schools in America … was a religious tradition that loved the soul and the mind and was meant to encourage the exploration and refinement of both.
That tradition may be a faded memory elsewhere, but here at Marquette, we aim to make it stronger with each passing year.
How we do that is as varied as the talents, worries, hopes and aspirations of our students, whose individuality we seek to nurture through our practice of cura personalis. But I will hazard two observations:
First, the transformative educational experience of this university must involve the one college that educates every student — the College of Arts and Sciences. After all, the liberal arts and sciences are at the heart of what Jesuit education has always been about. It holds a pride of place in the university.
Second, the transformative work of this university only grows stronger through the personal investment of each of you.
You probably have no way of knowing this but one thing happens repeatedly when I am out on the road meeting Marquette alumni. They ask about you.
They might not always remember the details of your lectures or the contents of your syllabi — none of my students seem to remember much of mine either — but these alumni can summon the care you showed them as if it was shown yesterday. They recall your stories — your decisions, your interests and your discoveries — and how it helped them write their stories.
In hearing about you from them, I’m reminded of the writer Pat Conroy and the southern English teacher, Gene Norris, whom he says “found a profoundly shy and battered young man and changed the course of his life with the extravagant passion he brought to the classroom.”
“Gene Norris didn’t just make his students love books,” writes Conroy. “He made us love the entire world.”
Whatever your discipline, that is your work at Marquette — helping our students love the world. I can think of no work more noble.
God bless Marquette’s faculty and staff, God bless Catholic and Jesuit higher education and God bless Marquette University.