President Raynard S. Kington presented the State of the College in a Scholars' Convocation at noon on Wednesday, Oct. 16, in Rosenfield Center 101.
President Raynard S. Kington, Grinnell College
Wednesday, October 16, 2013
Grinnell’s Big Work: A Historic Role in Today’s World
As we work through all the projects and initiatives that are on our plates for this year, I want to use my annual convocation to reflect on Grinnell’s mission
You invest so much time and care in what you do. It is important to remember the great value of that work.
100 years ago, The New York Times ran a two-page interview with Grinnell’s President, John Main, under the title, “The Big Work Done by a Small School”
A century later, our job isn’t done. So today I want to ask, what is the “big work” of this “small school” today?
Let’s start by considering the world we live in, which is faced with very big challenges. For example, our country is being deeply, perhaps even permanently divided by political polarization. It has literally brought our government to a halt.
And now there is a further risk that we might default on our national debt. This inability to work across differences is threatening our democracy. And, as is too often the case, the poor and powerless are at the greatest risk. For example, the WIC program, which provides advice and food assistance to new mothers with at at-risk babies, was down last week from a $7B annual appropriation to a contingency fund of just $125 million. Mothers and babies in this country were exposed to an increased risk of illness and death, simply as a consequence of our ideological stubbornness.
Another of the upheavals we are facing is in our global economy
I am thinking about the injustices of our widening wealth gap.
There is nothing wrong with wealth, but there is something very wrong with the enormous disparities between haves and have-nots.
Credit Suisse put out a report last week that shows how a tiny fraction of the world’s population—just .7 percent, or 32 million people—control 41% of the total wealth and resources, equal to about $98.7 trillion dollars.
Yet meanwhile millions of people around the world are dying of starvation, or curable illnesses, or lack of housing and clean water. How can we allow our fellow humans to suffer like that, in a world of such ample resources?
As the economy goes through its turmoil, it also contributes to global social disruptions.
Globalization has stimulated economic productivity and exciting new forms of creativity. But also social turmoil: migration flows and refugee crises, sectarianism and fundamentalism… You see the effects not only in Damascus or Cairo, but in Chicago and Des Moines.
There are reportedly 11.7 million immigrants living in the United States illegally right now. That is roughly three and a half percent of our total population. The debate over immigration policy has major implications for our own lives. No one in this room will be untouched by it.
Global warming is a related challenge.
Do we have the right to breathable air or clean water? And if we do, do people in the favelas of Sao Paolo or the cities of Kazakhstan have the same rights?
The final challenge on my list… for today, anyway!... is the accelerating pace of scientific discovery and technological innovation.
Science is evolving almost faster than we can adapt. This creates political and moral dilemmas about rights and privacy, about genetics versus environment, and so on.
Just last week, NPR ran a story about a woman who is trying to get pregnant. But she carries a mutation that would probably be fatal to her baby. Her doctors want to insert mitochondrial DNA from another woman’s donated eggs into her eggs, to repair the mutation. So the baby would essentially have two mothers. Does the birth mother have a right to this treatment as part of her medical care? What about the risk that this experimental treatment might introduce new mutations into the human genome?
These are hard questions. Maybe even unanswerable questions. But retreat into anti-science is not a solution. If we are going to survive and flourish—as a nation, as a world, as human beings and creatures on this earth—we have to solve them.
So, now that I’ve scared you, all we have to do is figure all of this out!
Kidding aside, Grinnellians really do take a special responsibility on ourselves to make the world a better place.
So, given these and other great social problems, what I am asking today is: what qualities do we need to foster in our students make a difference in the world, while also helping you succeed in your personal lives and ambitions?
If you study Grinnell history, you find that this school has repeatedly reinvented itself to address the needs of each new era. The Grinnell of the 1860s looks very different from the Grinnell of the early twentieth century, and from the 1960s, and from now. But the constant was the orientation to solving social problems, though those problems changed from decade to decade.
Our values serve as a sort of compass, so that we never lose our way.
I think we are experiencing another of our transformations right now. It is partly due to shifts in great social forces like the ones I just described. But it is also a function of changes in attitudes about the value of a college education, changes in technology, in teaching methods, in subject matter knowledge, in just about every aspect of our lives.
Amid all the change, this convocation seems like a good moment to pause and reflect on those values that will help us keep our bearings and stay true to our mission.
I want to start with inclusion
This sometimes gets articulated as a commitment to diversity. We have a proud tradition that dates back to Grinnell’s role as an early admitter of minorities and women.
In a world that struggles with polarization, Grinnell is known as a place where people from very different backgrounds come together and create a community.
We need to actively sustain that tradition. That is why I want us to do the research this year, and every year from now on, into the factors that influence a person’s success at Grinnell: so that we can make sure every member of our diverse community has a great experience in college, and an equal chance of life success afterwards.
That work has already started, and as we get more data we will incorporate it into the listening sessions and Town Hall discussions, so that we can set an agenda for how best to support student success and faculty and staff retention.
Another element of diversity is intellectual diversity, and mutual respect. This is something you have heard about from me since my very first day on campus, in our discussions about civility.
As we wade through this polarized period in our national history, I am going to ask how we can do more to cultivate a culture of tolerance and understanding.
As I mentioned at our recent Town Hall, for example, I do not believe we are as tolerant of diverse political and religious views as we should be.
I understand why passions run hot. With everything happening in our world, it is natural to feel that the stakes of every political choice are high. It creates a feeling that we can’t afford to be wrong, and that can easily slide over into righteous rage and intolerance.
But if we want to be a diverse campus where everyone feels welcomed and accepted, and if we want our graduates to be known for their ability to work with people from all backgrounds, then it starts here, on this campus, in these four years.
We are in the early days of that work, and I do not yet have a sense of what form it needs to take. But I want us to address the question of how we are going to live up to our core value of diversity in all its manifestations: racial, ethnic, religious, political, gender, and so on.
We are Grinnell, and I believe we can do this.
This is also a very democratic culture, and I place great store in the idea that the experience of living in such an inclusive environment for four years will make you better citizens and people after you leave.
But we live in a time where speed and efficiency are highly prized. Right here on campus, the pace of change is enormous. We have a lot of work to do, and the discussions about our financial future show that it can’t wait.
But democracy is messy. That is something I particularly think about in regard to our culture of shared governance.
Shared governance is a unique tradition in higher education. It means we have a cadre of brilliant people who commit to overcoming our collective challenges together. Grinnell is a better place because of the work our faculty and staff do, not just in the classroom or offices but on our endless committees. Sometimes I think back to that story of our origins as a school, when James J. Hill laid down a silver dollar and said “Now appoint a committee to take care of it.” Essentially, we had a committee on the first day we had a College!
But the level of our faculty and staff commitment is really quite extraordinary. Thank you for that.
And that thanks goes to students, too. Grinnell is special in the extent to which our students participate in the work of running the College.
This opportunity makes you into more successful graduates. I firmly believe so.
But sometimes it requires us to be patient while you familiarize yourselves with new issues.
Democracy and inclusion matter as much as speed and efficiency, and I want us to find the right balance in our work.
Another Grinnellian characteristic that the world needs is what we might call “fluency of knowledge.”
We live in a world that requires people to master ways of thinking, which help them adapt to the changing nature of information and knowledge.
Right now I see too many adults getting caught in the skills gap, because they were trained in one line of work, and when the economy shifted and job opportunities changed, they could not make the transition by learning new skills.
This is where an excellent liberal arts education like Grinnell’s gives you a big advantage.
We Grinnellians are proud of our ability to “learn how to learn,” applying our skills to a stream of new challenges. But, again, I want to make sure we are providing every student with this kind of learning.
Among other things, that means taking a close look at our humanities and social studies learning spaces. Teaching in these disciplines has changed enormously since the time when it was largely about a teacher standing in front of a class and reading a lecture to the students.
Today’s work is very different. Just like in science, where we have multi-view microscopes that allow a roomful of students to study a single cell, in the humanities and social studies technology enables whole classrooms of literature or archaeology students to analyze a document or artifact simultaneously.
Learning in this setting is active. It happens collaboratively, manipulating information in real time.
So, in the same way that the Noyce Science Center enabled us to reimagine science education, we are going to take a close look at ARH and Carnegie to see how those spaces can be configured to best support 21st century humanities and social studies learning.
We especially need to build flexible spaces that will accommodate new technologies and new ways of teaching and learning.
Meanwhile, under interim Dean David Lopatto, we have also launched a new Center for Teaching and Learning to build on our tradition of great teaching and advising.
As you may have noticed, many of these initiatives come straight out of the strategic planning discussions and the six major directions.
To which I would add the two cross-cutting themes for this year, diversity and technology.
A final quality the world needs, and which we proudly excel with, is what I would label “social vision.”
It is a combination of social awareness and innovation. The insight to care about one’s fellow beings, and to think about new ways to make their lives better.
This is true for alums in business and finance as much as those who work for the Grinnell Corps. Both have value: a philanthropic corporate executive can have an impact, just like the person working in Ghana or India.
Often they can even be the same person!
This spark of social commitment and creativity is what we aim to honor through the Grinnell Prize. The Prize is gaining us a reputation as a place that identifies great young social innovators and then gives you, our community, fascinating opportunities to interact with them.
This leads me back around to my main point, which is that the world needs more Grinnellians!
A century after that New York Times article about Grinnell, this is the great journey we are still on together.
This is the “big work done by a small school.”
So how will we do it?
I believe we are favored with some exceptional advantages
One is our location. I have been part of lots of conversations over the years that treat our location as a setback.
They often focus on a lack of national respect for Iowa, or on the absence of amenities like ethnic restaurants.
I think this is unfortunate.
First, there is tremendous cultural vitality here. It takes different forms than what some may be used to seeing in New York or Miami, but I believe we are making a mistake by undervaluing it.
When the Frugal Traveler columnist from the Times came through Iowa this summer, he posted a photo from Cedar Rapids of a telephone pole sign that pointed one way for the National Czech and Slovak Museum, and the other way for the African American Museum.
Like his caption said, “That's some serious multiculturalism for Iowa”!
I also think this place is special because of the kind of community you get when you situate a college in a small Midwestern town. There is a welcoming spirit here, and an opportunity for greater reflection and focus on your learning and your community.
It might not always feel that way, but try going to school in a big city like Boston or DC and you will very quickly see what I mean!
That reflectiveness is itself a deep part of who we are.
When Patti Crane was here on campus last week, from the firm that is helping us with our institutional identity work, one thing she noted was that during a decades-long career she had never been on a campus where so many student conversations were about the intellectual content of your education.
She says she has heard many other schools pay lip service to the life of mind, but she has never seen it lived as thoroughly as it is at Grinnell.
Self-governance is potentially another asset to us. Our recent Town Halls and the ensuing S&B editorial about “self-gov as a verb” are examples of how at your best you accept responsibility for your lives in a healthy and respectful way.
Like any learning process, self-gov is imperfect. Mistakes are part of how we learn. The difference—which scares many of our peers off from trying something similar—is that when you make a mistake in the classroom, it’s not usually a big deal. But when you make a mistake in your life, it can be a very big deal.
Part of my commitment to you is that we will always try to maintain a community where you can learn in a self-governing way, maturing in your autonomy. But we also have an obligation to protect you from harm.
That said, like a lot of Grinnellians before us, I believe you are better off learning life’s lessons than being sheltered from them.
Consider this quote from the inaugural address of another of my predecessors, President George Gates, in 1887. He said:
“It is ten thousand times better that the young people should learn to govern themselves, than that they should be governed in any best way whatsoever… I have boundless confidence in putting students on their honor.”
You can trace a direct line from that speech to our student handbook of today, which says, “those engaged in a liberal arts education create a community based on freedom of choice… Self-governance encourages students to become responsible, respectful, and accountable members of the campus, town, and global community.”
That is a perfect case for why the world needs more Grinnellians!
And along with respect for your autonomy goes our commitment to your personal learning and life goals.
At this fall’s Board meeting, our Trustees were impressed by presentations from Professors Erik Simpson in English and Danielle Lussier in Political Science.
Most of our Board members are alums, but have not taken a class here in years. So they were truly stunned by how innovative our teachers are.
Erik and Danielle represent a lot of other incredible colleagues at Grinnell, and one of the things that stood out in their presentations was the creative ways they integrated technology into their work.
Erik demonstrated his students’ interactive project building a James Joyce collection, and Danielle talked about her students’ uses of data and GIS to study comparative democratization.
Their brilliant work illustrates why technology will be a cross-cutting theme for us this year.
But technology does not teach. It is a tool used by teachers. So we are going to think about how we teach, and then find the ways that these new tools can enhance our work.
We are not going to jump into MOOCs. It is so not Grinnell to have 100,000 people sign up for an online class. At some level a class of that scale is always going to treat students like learning units rather than people.
What we can experiment with is “flipped classrooms,” where you absorb lecture content on your own schedule and spend more of your class time on discussion and collaborative projects.
These are sometimes called SPOCs: MOOCs are “massive open online courses,” and SPOCs are “small private online courses.”
Somehow SPOCs sounds much more Grinnellian to me. Maybe it’s the Star Trek reference.
As one example of a SPOC, you may know that this semester Professor Shonda Kuiper is piloting a statistics course with students from the Global Online Academy, a worldwide network of secondary schools.
This partnership with the Academy is funded through a gift from the Chair of our Board, Clint Korver ’89 and his wife, Miriam Rivera.
Through Shonda and the students in that class, we are learning a lot about when technology works well in the Grinnell teaching-and-learning model, and when it doesn’t.
We are going to continue this approach for the foreseeable future: bringing in new methods, and testing them, and measuring their effectiveness, and learning as much as we can.
As I mentioned earlier, at the same time we are going to think about how to make sure our classroom and learning spaces accommodate the best of this work.
I have covered a lot of ground in this speech. So I want to finish where I started, which is that all this work is all tied back to a great mission.
There are many good schools in this country. But there are not many that combine an excellent education with a commitment that every graduate will try to make the world a better place.
In every era, from Abolition to the Social Gospel and the New Deal, to the computer age, Civil Rights… Grinnell constantly reinvents itself to pursue enduring values in new ways, for new times.
The question I posed to you today is: what are the particular challenges of our age, and how can we prepare students who will commit to solving them?
In that November 1913 Times interview, President Main told the reporter the following:
“Our chief aim at Grinnell [is] to make our students in the fullest sense citizens of the United States and citizens of the world… Grinnell College is a democratic institution. If the student is not democratic when he enters we give him democracy [or her! Remember, this was 1913!]. What higher purpose can a college have than to be a school of citizenship?”
One hundred years later, we are living out this ideal in ways that John Main never imagined
This is indeed “Big work for a small school.”
I am so pleased to able join in that work with you.
Q&A will follow