Westminster College President Dr. Brian Levin-Stankevich Website
Inauguration 2012: Purpose and Craft

Inauguration 2012: Purpose and Craft

October 20, 2012 | Download the PDF | Watch the Video


Today, I am particularly delighted by the very special presence of my dad, Henry Stanky, not just for the fact that at 92 years of age we still have the extraordinary pleasure of his company and his love, but for all that he represents to me. A first generation American, Dad grew up during the Great Depression, served in the military and then in the war industries effort. He completed a vocational secondary education and became a machinist, a tool and die man—a craft he practiced his entire working life and at which he made a decent living. He provided for our family and, by working overtime and an occasional second job, also provided for my education. He has always worked with his hands, yet he has always harbored deep curiosities about the world around us. He and my late mother encouraged my sister and me to develop our own curiosities about the world. A devout and good Catholic, he fulfilled his obligations to church, community and family, and he did so without complaint.

The deepest lesson I have learned from Dad is that we are what we do, not what we say. I learned that I will be judged by my labors—and I use that term labor with some reverence.

The Franciscan religious order holds that labor is a gift that gives us the opportunity to provide example and to serve.1  Every job that my Dad undertook, whether at the factory where he produced windshield wipers or around the house where he repaired and remodeled was done with concentration, attention to detail, and, above all, pride. He showed me that there is a dignity to everything we do, that what we do is an extension of our selves. He exemplified sociologist Richard Sennett’s definition of “craftsmanship” as “an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake.”2

Today, I want to talk about craftsmanship in its various manifestations—the desire to do a job well for its own sake, because it seems that over the course of my professional lifetime, the pursuit of higher education has increasingly come to be defined less by the learning it represents and more by its contribution to economic development. In short, this means preparing graduates for a job. This is certainly an important goal for all levels of education and for all institutions as is appropriate for their missions.

Westminster, like all higher education institutions must be cognizant of this role, as well as the multiple roles any college plays in the local and regional economy as employer, purchaser of goods, neighbor, exporter, and contributor to the area’s quality of life. Yet some in the popular media have asked whether college is worth the investment. A quick survey of sources from the Wall Street Journal to the US Census Bureau to the Utah Educational Savings Plan indicate that as recently as 2011 a college graduate could expect to earn between $21,500 and $25,000 per year more than a high school graduate, and that is after subtracting the cost of education and the income foregone by four years in college.

The average indebtedness of a Westminster College graduate as of 2011 was $22,557.3  This average debt is roughly equal to and more likely less than just one year of the additional earning power that comes from college graduation. In other words, a typical student’s debt is theoretically paid off in just one year of heightened earnings. And, to put college debt into further perspective, the 61 percent of our 2011 graduates who took out loans to finance their education borrowed that average of $22,557. The average new car loan taken out as of July of this year, according to the Federal Reserve, was $25,995. The value of a college degree will appreciate over the lifetime of its holder. The value of a new vehicle will not.4

The unemployment rate for high school graduates has been more than double that of college graduates, especially through this recession, despite wild rhetoric about unemployment among college graduates. If a graduate goes on for a Masters, Doctorate or Professional degree—and a bachelor’s degree is essential to that progression—all of these financial value indicators rise considerably. More income per year. More career opportunities. Greater employment security.5

So yes, of course, it is important for us to prepare our students for careers. Yet another point of public debate about higher education is about the value not only of a college degree but of a degree in specific majors. Some have even gone so far as to propose eliminating academic disciplines, generally in the liberal arts, because they believe it does not contribute either to a student’s readiness to earn a paycheck or to the economic needs of the state.6

I had the opportunity to recently complete a post-doctoral program in business. This experience reinforced my sense of the interconnectedness of our disciplines. Without anthropology, sociology and psychology, I cannot imagine maintaining our understanding of organizational behavior and human resources. Without psychology and linguistics, I cannot imagine expertise in marketing. Without art and design, no advertising or ergonomic products. Some 42 percent of you right now have a smartphone in your pocket—hopefully with the ringer turned off—and that product alone has benefitted from a considerable amount of work from sociologists, psychologists, artists and designers. The professions most financially valued by the economy have roots in the arts, the sciences, and the social sciences. And these are only examples from some of what is taught in schools of business.

And what about those careers that are less financially valued by society: social workers; drug rehabilitation counselors; parole officers; teachers; and public servants? If the value of an education or the quality of a college or university is to be judged by the salary of a graduate, what incentive is there to prepare people for the ministry (except perhaps televangelists)? Why would we ever encourage a graduate to enter the Peace Corps or Teach for America or AmeriCorps?

While this return on investment has become the apparent focus of many who like to debate and critique higher education, it is also important to consider the question of who can access higher education. I have always been committed to excellence in education for all students. It is important that we as a nation, as a state and as a community fully develop the talents of every motivated member of our community. Not all this talent can be measured in the same way any more than we as people all learn in the same way. I am committed to Westminster being a partner in working toward raising the educational attainment of our entire Salt Lake population. This is not just a societal issue but also one of extreme importance to Westminster College today and 50 years from today. I will continue to reach out to those in our community who can help us work with students and families who may not yet see college, let alone Westminster College, as an option for their future. This will require creativity, collaboration and philanthropy, but it is worth every effort we invest.

Developing the talents of individuals is very different from merely preparing someone to perform a job. Now, this gets to the very heart of what I’m trying to say, that education is and should be about so much more than a paycheck. Some would say that if students are not prepared for a job after completing college, then the college has failed. We must recognize, of course, that students also bear a large responsibility for their own success or failure. Nevertheless, if the only thing students are prepared for after college is a job, then we have also failed.

Let me give you a poignant illustration of what I mean to say. A British university leader speaking in 2009 to an international educational conference asserted that we in higher education had created a class of financiers, bankers and investors who were intelligent, innovative, and extraordinarily adept at their jobs, but that they lacked a moral compass—leading us into a global recession after massive risk-taking on chimerical investment schemes. He asked the college and university leaders assembled there what we planned to do about it.

What will we at Westminster College do about this?

All of these highly educated investment specialists were competent from the standpoint of performing their jobs and meeting the technical and even the legal standards of their professions. It appears that competence has become detached from purpose.

I want us to think about the idea of purpose. Many of us took up academic work expecting little by way of financial reward. We sought to improve lives, change family histories and contribute to the collective knowledge and wisdom of the world. Our faculty colleagues have spent years not only mastering a way of knowing but also reflecting on that knowledge and on how best to convey that learning to their students. In the words of one author, college and universities impart a memory. Faculty members “teach disciplinary thinking and the historical foundations of that discipline so that learners can make sense of the flood of data and information now available.”7

What is our purpose at Westminster College? Is it simply to offer and test competence? If so, competence at what?

At our heart, we are a small liberal arts college. You will hear that across our campus, from our graduates, and even from people in the community who know only a little about Westminster. That means different things to different people, but at the least it means educating the whole student. It means a form of instruction and learning that borrows from the great Socratic traditions of questioning and inquiry. It means the integration of theoretical and experiential learning and a broader definition of scholarship that includes not only research but also teaching and engagement with the community. It means the availability of a breadth of education, the goals of which are quite clearly stated in our Westminster core values and posted all across campus:

• Impassioned teaching and active learning
• Respect for diverse people and perspectives
• Collaboration and teamwork
• Personal and social responsibility
• College-wide excellence
• High ethical standards

Above all, at Westminster College, this means educating students to become engaged members of society in addition to being producers and consumers.8

By implementing all that is meant by liberal arts education as a way of learning and by incorporating a strong practice of mentoring and coaching, we have multiple opportunities to confront our students with critical questions. In this “just do it” culture (or for those fans of Larry the Cable Guy— “Git ’Er Done” culture) is it not particularly important to make sure that our graduates ask, “Just do what” and “why?”

This should never mean that we try to give students our goals or lead them to give us back our personal philosophies or beliefs. But as we introduce questioning and inquiry to students, often breaking down their preconceptions and causing them to question their accepted beliefs, we should also help them find the tools and the guideposts to rebuild those beliefs. Whatever view of the world and their place in it that our graduates hold, it will be stronger and more consistent for having been questioned and for their having reflected on those views in the light of challenging and contrary perspectives.

Asking “just do what” and “why?” I have heard our students and our graduates answer such questions with a clarity that makes me very proud. Undergraduate students speak of their mentors on the faculty and among our staff. These are personal relationships that help guide students through the choices they must make to achieve an education. They are reminiscent of my own experience. I am pleased that Dr. Michael Haltzel is here with us today, having presented as the UCCD speaker series on Tuesday evening. I took my first course at Hamilton College from Michael in 1969, 41 years ago. I then took every course he offered, and he has been a friend and periodic confidant ever since. Somehow, I think that Mike would not be with me here today if I had been one of 100,000 taking a massive open online course from him 41 years ago.

Our graduate students also speak of the transformative experience of Westminster College, causing them to question assumptions that had survived their undergraduate study elsewhere and giving them the mentoring that helped them to find their passion, incorporate that passion into their lives, and act on it. Sometimes these mentors are their professors, often their professional coaches. Their inspirations though came from other people involved in their learning and their lives.

This is the job we do. It is the job we are committed to doing as best we can for its own sake. It is, therefore, our craft, and craftsmen and craftswomen practice it across our college. Yet it is even more than that at a community like Westminster College. For here, craftsmanship is practiced with purpose. Teaching and learning and preparing our students to be successful while also encountering and addressing our core values must be for us that job that we do well for its own sake.

Educating, not just credentialing our students throughout all of our programs needs to be our craft, and we need to state that loudly and often. What motivates me is knowing that I’ve done the very best I am capable of doing, continuously improving my own skill set to perform at an even higher level in the future, and expecting and motivating those around me to exceed their own expectations of themselves. Ultimately, making a difference is what motivates me and I suspect most of us in higher education. Achieving without purpose may create results and financial gain, but it does not satisfy my definition of labor: to give example and to serve.

At my own baccalaureate commencement, Dad asked: what can you do now? Go to graduate school, I replied. At the end of my master’s, he asked: what can you do now? Go on for a doctorate, I replied. Luckily, before I completed my doctorate, I was married, employed and a father, so I avoided that next difficult question.

These parental questions are legitimate, but knowledge is increasingly interconnected and integrated. So our challenge for the immediate future is to assure that our students are equipped to make a living while they also seek to understand their purpose in making a living. We will continue to be a comprehensive liberal arts college, but we must remember, to paraphrase an NCAA advertisement, that most of our students go pro, in something other than liberal arts.

Our graduates who become doctors, attorneys, sales managers, politicians, entrepreneurs, nurses, scientists, pilots, executives, and teachers will, in turn, need to support the arts and culture in their communities. They will need to vote in elections and participate in the political process if we are to remain a united people. They will work in an increasingly global environment and within an increasingly diverse population. They will need to empathize with those less able or privileged. Preparing our students for these realities is not the preserve of specific majors or disciplines; it is an obligation we all share as educators. It is, in short, how we craft an education, and in turn, foster a generation of intelligent craftsmen and craftswomen who will contribute to a better future for all. And this too is essential for economic development.

As we adapt to new technologies and new ways of learning and teaching—and there is no doubt that we must do so whether in person, on-line or in the next best technology we encounter—we must construct our programs in ways that deliver these outcomes regardless of the learning environment or the technology platform we use. These outcomes, delivered through people building relationships with people, are the cornerstone of a Westminster education.

These goals comprise our purpose. If practiced with a commitment to craftsmanship, they will assure our distinctiveness. The Westminster graduate will exemplify the best of a purposeful education for career and life. This is our labor; this is our craft, as the Franciscans believed: to give example and to serve. It is what I expect of myself and what I commit to you here in my new community as I assume the presidency of Westminster College.


[1] Constitution of the Order of Friars Minor, modern version cited at http://www.ofm.org/ofm/?page_id=485&lang=en
[2] Richard Sennett, The Craftsman, Yale University Press, 2008, p. 9
[3] Westminster College, Common Data Set for 2011-2012. Available at: https://www.westminstercollege.edu/pdf/institutional_research/Financial Aid.pdf
[4] Construct for this section modeled on blog by Jill Tiefenthaler, President of Colorado College at http://sites.coloradocollege.edu/president/2012/10/03/how-much-debt-is-too-much-debt/
[5] Pew Research Center, “Is College Worth It?”, Chapter 5: The Monetary Value of a College Education. http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2011/05/15/is-college-worth-it/6/ - chapter-5-the-monetary-value-of-a-college-education
[6] http://www.allgov.com/news/unusual-news/florida-gov-scott-wants-to-eliminate-anthropology-majors?news=843437
[7] Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring, The Innovative University, p. 334
[8] For greater elaboration on these and related concepts, see: Parker Palmer and Arthur Zajonc, The Heart of Higher Education, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2010; Martha C. Nussbaum, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Princeton U. Pr., New Jersey, 2010; and Howard Gardner, Five Minds for the Future, Harvard Business School Pr., Boston, 2006.


Download the Inauguration Address of Westminster College’s 17th President
Given October 20, 2012
 

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