I came to Michigan State as provost because I wanted to be a leader in transition times, and I believed I could assist you, the president, and the deans academically – while also supporting a systemic change of the culture. And, perhaps aspirationally, I wanted to create a way of thinking and work that is durable in our context, and that establishes generational positive outcomes on learning, teaching, research, and outreach in our creative community, and in simply being human beings working together.
I see notable change in everyday interactions, including greater thoughtfulness in how disagreements are discussed, with more respect of different opinions, empathy for those with less power, including students and staff, and self-advocacy for voice in decision making. I see it in the cross-campus collaborations in designing leadership trainings for supervisors and academic administrators (including our new Dean’s School) and the national recognition for this work by the National Academies of Science, Medicine, Engineering Action Collaborative on Preventing Sexual Harassment, of which Michigan State is a founding member. I see it in the new linkages between the Office of Institutional Equity and the Office of the Provost, which are putting in place interim measures as soon as we have notice of concerning or problematic behavior. And I see it in the larger policy changes, like recent updates to our policy on Discipline and Dismissal of Tenured Faculty for Cause.
These changes do not happen by fiat, but rather by intention, attention, and discourse.
One of the greatest strengths of a university and of a higher education community is in the rigorous debate of ideas and the coming together of those with diverse backgrounds (political, religious, educational training/level, racial, gender, geographical) and diversity of ideas. Because of our commitment to debate and diversity, universities are plural and messy – and that is where the energy in the system originates. Any time debate occurs around ideas, we cultivate the possibility of transformation. When we limit speech, debate, or anything in the theater of ideas or the way we work, we lose the opportunity to build toward a more just shared future. This is fundamentally what makes higher education different from any other enterprise. It is what makes the work that we do – the labor of the mind – categorically different than the labor of the marketplace. Coming together does not always result in consensus, but does provide new pathways forward.
At every step in our work together, we have anchored our thinking in the bedrock of academic freedom. “Michigan State University endorses academic freedom and responsibility as essential to the attainment of the university's goal of the unfettered search for knowledge and its free exposition.” Indeed, these principles are formalized in the Faculty Rights and Responsibilities policy in the Faculty Handbook and have been in place since 1984 as implementation of this fundamental concept in higher education. This attribute of faculty and university pursuit was reaffirmed in my 2021 Provost Statement on Faculty Tenure and Promotion.
With academic freedom comes the responsibility to carry out assigned teaching, research, and outreach duties with the highest ethical standards. Some of our commitments to culture change and accountability were substantially reinforced by the February 11, 2022, Board of Trustees’ unanimous approval of the faculty-led and revised Discipline and Dismissal of Tenured Faculty for Cause policy. This newly revised policy and the associated process training have as their bedrock academic freedom and due process – tenets we defend, cherish, and that are uplifted in this work. Additionally, it is evident in the work we are doing on conflict of interest. Paraphrasing from my charge to the committee examining our policies and procedures regarding conflict of interest:
…conflicts of interest, although rare, evince the need for the institution to reconsider how MSU protects academic freedom.
… I believe that academic freedom and the institution are best protected through clear policies and transparency
regarding faculty activities and are essential elements of the faculty-University professional relationship.
Finally, and perhaps one of the most important reasons for academic freedom, is that new knowledge can be orthogonal to present thinking and societal or personal norms. It challenges all of us to continually think and grow. I often say, “we are educatable even as we educate.” Indeed, these seven words are worthy of deep contemplation. Am I holding to a long-standing set of unexamined habits or mindset when faced with ideas discordant to my own inclination, experience, or learning? MSU, we must be educatable even as we educate, and we must be open to the theater of ideas and turn each over without opprobrium for the person, but with openness to new intellectual possibilities.