Some Things I Believe
A Message From President Michael Bassis
Westminster College occupies a unique place in the landscape of higher education within Utah and across the intermountain West. As a private, comprehensive, liberal arts college, we are the only school of our kind in the state and one of the very few in the region. Our curricula integrate liberal and professional studies and our pedagogies blend theory and practice. At the very heart of the college is a deep concern for students and their learning.
I have served as the president of Westminster College for only a few months, and already I am enormously impressed with the richness, vitality, and diversity of the conversations that occur among students and faculty, including those that occur outside the classroom. I believe that many of the ideas we discuss are of interest to people far removed from our campus. Thus we developed Westminster Matters in an effort to share some of the important topics of discussion here.
This first issue contains the address I delivered recently at my official inauguration ceremony.
Some Things I Believe
There are some occasions when it is appropriate, perhaps even important, to speak of things that are more fundamental, more consequential, more significant. A presidential inauguration is one of those occasions. At the same time, however, inauguration speeches, coming as they do after so many kind words of welcome, ought to be mercifully brief. The goal is to take very little time to say something important. I'm tempted to sit down right now. But to be brief is a very difficult thing to do, especially for someone who has spent his entire career in an enterprise where brevity, while valued, is almost never practiced, even by those with little to say. And I suspect you are here today, in part, to see if I do have anything to say. But I will do my best to be brief. Let me share with you some things I believe.
I believe I have one of the very best jobs in American higher education. At its core, my job entails being a good steward for a very good college and its valuable resources. And these resources are many: students who are bright, and eager, and disciplined; a talented, dedicated, and seemingly tireless group of faculty and staff; a distinguished and engaged board of trustees (who certainly demonstrated their capacity for exercising good judgment during their recent search for a new president); experienced administrators who manage the daily operations and the fiscal affairs of the college exceedingly well; campus facilities that are wonderfully designed and maintained; a large cadre of loyal and generous supporters, and widespread recognition as an institution of quality. But beyond all of these wonderful resources, there is a special quality that has defined and distinguished the college throughout its history and that has endeared it to so many. Although its mission has evolved since its founding 128 years ago, and although it has experienced at least its fair share of misfortune over time, Westminster College has always been a very good college because of one simple fact: The faculty and staff of the college care deeply about students and the quality of their learning. While this characteristic may not have been so unusual in previous eras, it is all too rare today.
At the heart of the matter, at the very soul of the college, are the deep commitments that the Westminster faculty has to student learning. These commitments are manifest in the time that faculty devote to their teaching, in the remarkable efforts they make to connect with students, in the care with which they encourage and support the teaching efforts of other faculty, and in the standards they uphold when evaluating a colleague's teaching. It is manifest in the stories that faculty tell about the memorable moments in their careers and in the colleagues they identify as their role models. One senior member of the faculty described the deep concern for students and their learning that the Westminster faculty share as a sacred trust, one that is passed on from one generation of faculty to another.
Yes, I am in my honeymoon period at Westminster, and honeymooners do have a tendency to see only the best. But I have been on more than my fair share of honeymoons over the course of my 30-year career and I'm not as easily fooled by first impressions as I might have been in the past. I find the depth of Westminster's commitment to students and their learning to be exceedingly rare and precious.
We can all remember the good teachers we have had; people who touched us deeply; who challenged and supported us and who captured our imagination, our attention, and our respect; teachers whose lessons continue to inform our lives. When I talk with Westminster College alumni, as well as with current students, they never, absolutely never, fail to emphasize that it's the teachers they have had who have made their experience at Westminster so special. When I talk with members of the Westminster College faculty about such matters, they never fail to mention that it's not the teaching that counts, it's the students and their learning.
Being a good steward of a college that cares so deeply about students and their learning is, for me, a labor of love. But simply being a good steward isn't enough to keep me fully engaged. I do need challenges. The challenge for me is to help a very good college become great. And I do believe that Westminster aspires to be a great college. The Board of Trustees has shared with me its great pride in the accomplishments of the college over the last two decades. At the same time it conveyed its strong sense that the college must continue to build on its strengths, elevate its sights, and expand its expectations for itself and its students. My conversations with faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends of the college suggest that their ambitions for the college match those of the trustees.
I believe that Westminster College is eager to set an ambitious agenda for itself, an agenda that will help us to move from good to great (Collins, Jim. Good to Great, New York: Harper Business, 2001), to borrow a phrase from the title of a recent book. Moreover, I believe the agenda, expressed in the form of a new strategic plan, must be grounded in a clear, coherent, and compelling statement of educational purpose and accompanied by explicit goals for student learning. With a clear educational vision as the focal point for our institutional planning efforts, we can align our programs, our policies, and our practices, and we can allocate our resources to support what matters most, namely our educational priorities. That is the only way for a college or university to move from good to great.
In addition, I believe our plan must reflect the core values and enduring strengths of the college. Certainly, any plan for Westminster College must honor and encourage the continuing commitment of faculty and staff to our students and their learning. Certainly any plan must embrace our continuing efforts to blend and balance the liberal arts and professional studies.
I believe our plan must be designed to develop an educationally distinctive, learning-centered environment. To become distinctive means that we must develop an educational signature that differentiates Westminster College from other comprehensive liberal arts colleges across the country. If our signature can blend an important strength of the college with an important value, interest, or need in society, and if our signature is both sensible to the head and appealing to the heart(Kotter, John P. Leading Change. p. 66, Boston, Massachusetts Harvard Business School Press, 1996), I have no doubt that it will generate great enthusiasm and support among students, alumni, and friends of the college as well as among faculty and staff. It will also generate added visibility for the college beyond the Intermountain states.
I believe our plan must be built to last for the foreseeable future and that it must be accompanied by a comprehensive implementation plan. And, if we are serious about moving from good to great, I believe our plan must be bold and not timid. I believe we should begin to develop Westminster College as a nationally recognized institution.
Furthermore, I believe that the process we use to develop the plan is almost as important as the plan itself. I believe that if we employ an open, highly inclusive and participatory process we will be able to tap into the collective wisdom that can emerge from a dialogue among multiple stakeholders, each of whom sees the college from a different angle of vision. I believe that, if we employ a highly collaborative process involving faculty, staff, students, alumni, trustees, and other friends of the college, we will be able to tap into an enormous wellspring of energy and creativity and commitment. Such qualities only emerge when people feel a genuine sense of ownership of a plan, ownership that develops as people actively participate in its creation. The issue of ownership is particularly important for faculty and staff. Since they will be on the frontlines of any and all efforts to execute an educational plan, faculty and staff must have the enthusiasm and the commitment for the task that comes only from helping to create the plan in the first place. Indeed, if the faculty and staff of the college are among the principal architects of our plans, I have no doubt that Westminster will blossom as never before.
My responsibilities in the planning process are to charge the institution with the task, to explain its importance and to set the ground rules for how to proceed. And yes, I would like to have a voice in the deliberations. As you might have imagined, I have been thinking about these issues for a long time and I do have ideas, absolutely superb ideas I might add, that I hope to contribute to the deliberations. Permit me to share just a few.
I believe that, in American higher education, some types of learning have been too long neglected. Certainly we want students to acquire certain intellectual skills and capacities, including skills in writing, oral expression, quantitative reasoning, and critical thinking. Certainly we want students to understand the kinds of questions that are pertinent to different areas of intellectual endeavor and the methodologies available for addressing these questions. We want them to understand the social contexts in which they live and how, why, and with what consequences these contexts continue to change. We want them to learn to appreciate the arts and humanities. But there are certain kinds of learning that deserve more attention than they currently receive.
First, I believe we need to pay more attention to helping students develop the capacity to deal productively with people they experience as different, different with respect to such things as gender, religion, ethnicity, race, and sexual orientation. I believe we do our students, and perhaps our society, a great disservice if we don't help students develop both the wisdom and the skill to overcome the many barriers to cross-cultural understanding. Despite the challenges that this type of learning can involve, our increasing interdependence, both nationally and internationally, makes it imperative that we succeed at helping students build bridges across the boundaries that separate one group of people from another.
Second, I believe we need to pay more attention to helping students deepen their ethical and moral sensitivities. The great questions facing contemporary society are not questions of knowledge or fact. They are questions of ethics and values. While attending to such matters may be the responsibility of families and churches, schools, including colleges, can, and I believe should, assume responsibility as well. Almost everything that happens within a school presents an opportunity to teach values. Matters of what is fair, what is right, what is just, what is virtuous, and what is important are present in almost every encounter in school, inside and outside the classroom. By attending more self-consciously to the potential of these encounters we can help our students develop their capacities for making sound value judgments, resolving ethical dilemmas, using ethical considerations in decision making, and honoring high standards for individual and social responsibility.
Third, I believe we need to pay more attention to helping students develop the interpersonal skills and orientations that will enable them to be effective in the full range of their interactions with others. We spend most of our lives in social settings where a good deal of our satisfaction and success turns on our skills at interpersonal relations. Negotiating differences, resolving conflicts, working effectively in teams, and collaborating in problem-solving and decision-making activities are skills that are increasingly essential in modern life. And these skills can be developed as easily and through the same methods as the intellectual skills we currently emphasize.
Finally, I believe we need to pay more attention to helping students develop their capacities for civic engagement. Across the country there is a growing recognition that colleges and universities must do more to help prepare students to become responsible members of a democratic society. And we know that some of our newest pedagogies, community-service learning, problem-based learning, and collaborative learning, are effective strategies for giving students both the skills and the orientations they will need. But perhaps the most effective strategy for helping students with this important learning is for all of us to model the behavior we hope they will learn as we participate in the affairs of the college.
I know that individual faculty in both our professional and our liberal arts programs attend seriously to many of these important learning goals. But I believe that the whole can be greater, much greater, than the sum of its parts. Institutions with clearly articulated and coherent educational purposes, institutions that set explicit goals for student learning, are more powerful educational environments than those that do not.
But it is Westminster's deep commitment to students and their learning that is the college's defining trait and the foundation on which we will build an even more powerful educational environment. To highlight my own dedication to student learning, and to ensure that external audiences become aware that this trait is an important institutional hallmark, I am taking this opportunity to announce the formation of the President's Ambassadorial Corps at Westminster College. Presidential Ambassadors are a small cadre of students, selected through a highly competitive process, who will take turns accompanying me whenever I leave the campus to represent the college. Along the way I will teach them everything I have learned, more often than not the hard way, about how best to represent oneself and one's institution to different audiences. Their representation of the college is sure to convey the value of the Westminster experience in more authentic and memorable ways than any president could hope to do. My enthusiasm for this idea was so strong that I considered asking one of the Ambassadors to write and deliver this inaugural address. (My enthusiasm can indeed get out of hand.)
Moving from good to great is easier said than done. The effort will require great courage and great persistence. It will also require a willingness to question old assumptions and to expand one's thinking about what is possible. I wouldn't be here if I didn't think it could be done or if I didn't think it was worth doing. I wouldn't be here if I didn't think you would be willing to work alongside me toward this common goal.
I believe in Westminster College and I am honored to serve as your 16th president. I pledge to you the best that I have to give.
Michael S. Bassis