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For University Convocation, August 28, 2003

Good morning, Dr. Corti, Faculty, Staff, and students.  Welcome to this Convocation ceremony to mark the opening of the academic year 2003-2004.  That the University should celebrate a formal ceremony of this type, gathering those who study, those who teach, and those who administer, follows an ancient tradition. 

What we do as a University, however, is unique and, seen from afar, a bit mysterious.  Our work is both intensely personal and private, yet public and mutual; solitary and bounded, yet communal and interactive.  Our purpose is at once immediate and far-reaching.  In our research and in our teaching, we could, in the words of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, be “sowing winter wheat which the coming spring will see sprout and which other hands than ours will reap and enjoy.”  Forty years ago today, I listened to Dr. King’s speech.  It was a teacher who helped me to understand how Dr. King’s dream offered me, a white Southerner,  and all Americans, new freedom.  Forty years later, I can scarcely think of any other single piece of writing that has influenced my thinking as much as those words.  It was a teacher who opened my mind and my heart.

The very colorful and unusual array of academic regalia is always the most striking feature of an academic convocation, and, I think, points clearly to our core values as an institution.  On this stage are the men and women who teach at this institution, the faculty, wearing the colors of their own universities and academic disciplines.   While many others of us, administrators and staff, are also wearing our academic colors, all of us serve in a complementary role to the faculty’s mandate both to teach our students and to discover new ways to be and to live.  And students, it will be a great teacher, someone or someones on this stage, whose guidance will change your lives and whose memory you will carry with you forever.

Someone once asked me how I know, when faced with a difficult decision, which is the best path to follow.  For, in matters of education, we seldom find a clear and intelligent alternative juxtaposed with a foolish one.   It is the best choice for the moment that we seek, and throughout my academic life, one criterion has always, in my view, provided the best guide.  Which choice will ensure that the University environment remain the very best place to teach?  Which choice will best support and enhance the faculty’s charge?  For if the University remains the best possible venue for teaching, it will follow that students, staff, and the community are served in the best possible way.

But the faculty’s role and responsibility reaches beyond their teaching and research. It is the faculty who determines the University’s priorities and goals.  One week ago today, the faculty and administrative staff met for our annual fall assembly.  As a part of that gathering, and in response to an extraordinarily lucid presentation by Dr. Marshall Hill of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, we divided ourselves into discussion groups to ponder our strengths, our challenges, and what each of us most wants to see the University accomplish this year.   Mary Treviño is now compiling the results of those discussions, information to form the agenda for college and departmental retreats this fall. 

In advance of those retreats and the action items that I expect to come from those gatherings, it might be helpful to review University-wide changes and adjustments that have occurred as a direct result of faculty intervention.   As you will notice, my examples range from the somewhat pedestrian, easy to arrange, to the very profound, requiring careful consideration.   First, the drink machines. A number of Coca-cola and soft drink dispensers were thoughtlessly, though I assure you not purposefully, placed out of easy reach, and we seemed to need machines stocked with bottled water.  You will now notice a number of new sites for both sorts of machines.

Next, our e-mail system. A number of faculty members, over several years, have expressed a desire to be able to access e-mail from home, the road, the south of France, wherever one happens to be.   Technological and fiscal challenges conspired to delay action.  I remember the choice then was between upgrading the e-mail system or buying our first piano for use in the Great Room, then our only space for any sort of gathering.  Provost Larry Boyd decided, I think correctly, to purchase the piano and to return later to the e-mail issue.  Since that time, many faculty members have suggested that we should have a permanent e-mail connection to our present students and our alumni.   This summer we installed a new system to accomplish two important tasks, as well as a number of less significant ones.  Each member of the faculty and each of our students and alumni now need only enter any cybercafe in the world, type in, <> and immediately through the University website read, compose, send, or receive e-mail.  

In my next example, faculty-initiated change came to relieve us all from what might be called e-mail fatigue. Do you remember all those annoying messages that we had to sort through only a few months ago?  “Someone driving a blue van has a flat tire.”  “Would anyone like to buy a cocker puppy, really, really cute?”  “Did anybody see my glasses in Bullock after lunch?” Of more concern to deans and chairs were the so-called “e-mail wars” which regularly erupted. The all-button installed in our system, allowing this sort of annoyance.  A clearly inappropriate use of state resources, the lawyers told us. The all-button  is now concentrated in the offices of deans and vice presidents, as well as with any member of the faculty or staff whose task requires frequent communication with all of us. 

Next, attendance at graduation ceremonies.  Do you remember when faculty were required to attend fall and spring commencement?  This practice comes from a time when we were much smaller, and it was necessary for all faculty and administrative staff to be present for students, parents, and visitors to grasp the scope of a University experience.  Beginning last year, at the request of the Senate, recognizing that the University is a much larger and more diverse institution, we agreed that faculty could reasonably choose to attend either fall or spring commencement.

Next, faculty eliminated irrational expectations.  For many years, we began Thanksgiving vacation at the end of classes on Wednesday evening.  And we began final examinations the day after the last class ended.  I was among those faculty members who complained bitterly, for years,  that this was simply irrational.  Who can reasonably be expected to be in class at 10:00 p.m. the evening before what is now the biggest and most popular holiday in our country? How can students or faculty attend to the serious matter of finals if examinations begin the morning after the last class?  We now begin Thanksgiving vacation at the end of classes on Tuesday.   And we observe a reading day between the end of classes and final examinations.

Next, parking—where, and at what hours.  For a number of years, a committee has looked at this issue.  One of the discussion groups from last week, mindful of the high cost of strict surveillance, repeated a delightfully simple solution the committee had put forward: just enforce the rules as now published.  Accordingly, beginning this semester, and I expect you have already noticed, we will begin a much stricter enforcement of the parking regulations as a first step toward answering faculty concerns.  A number of new “boots” have been purchased to shackle offending vehicles, and personnel have been added to help police the lots.  I will be eager to hear at the end of the semester how effective stricter enforcement can be.

Next, academic and administrative structure and staffing.  This year the University has experienced a significant restructuring and reshaping of several academic programs and departments.  Each of these changes began as a serious concern, advanced by members of the faculty.   

Finally, most important, faculty concerns altered, I hope forever, our teaching loads.  When I became Provost in December, 1998, University policy required a full-time faculty member to teach four courses per semester, often with three or even four preparations.  It is simply not possible to produce quality research nor can our students be best served when faculty are asked to carry such heavy loads.  The Senate had published, as a revision to our first handbook, a model for balancing faculty responsibilities, but that proposal had remained dormant. For the College of Business, this issue had by that time already become a critical one, as scholarship adequate to accreditation standards could never evolve from a faculty required to carry four courses per semester.  From all parts of the University, faculty called for a systematic, coherent response to the question of teaching loads. 

First, we immediately reduced the teaching load of all tenure-track appointments.  Second, I drafted, then deans, Faculty Senate, and general faculty revised, a proposal to implement teaching and research tracks for tenured faculty. Ours was the first of its kind in the A&M System; a number of Texas universities have since adopted similar plans.  We have begun, in the College of Business, to grant even more release time to tenure-track appointments for whom research expectations are the most ambitious in the University.  I hope future funding will allow similar opportunities for all tenure-track faculty.  Most important, both the impetus to explore these reforms and the details of their implementation were the result of faculty concerns.

But what of the year we are just beginning?   First, we are most fortunate that even in a time a severe budget restrictions, the growth of the University continues unabated.  We will finish the theater for the fine arts building, oversee construction of the science building, erect the residential complex, build out Phase V for the kinesiology and athletic programs.  Yet to be determined are the internal and programmatic reforms or adjustments which will come from the faculty.  Even before the Provost leads a series of faculty retreats, I suggest at least three goals for this year.  Each of these ideas is one put forward to me by one or more members of the faculty.

First, what does it mean to be an “international university”?  We must define more clearly how that designation defines our programs.  Second, we must institute the graduate school whose structure and plan was approved last year by the Senate.  Third, we must locate the resources to allow significant expansion of the faculty in crucial portions of our curriculum, especially the sciences. 

All the reforms, all the changes I have just summarized began with the faculty.  The colors you see proclaim the academic message, their intellectual charge.  

Teachers will indeed sow winter wheat in their students’ hearts and minds.  They will also set the course for this institution.

(Remarks delivered at the University Convocation, August 28, 2003.)