beaumont tower with pink flowers

We spend a great deal of time and energy managing the effects of uncertainty, and we are worried for ourselves and for the people with whom we work about the anxieties created by this uncertainty.

At a recent UGAAD meeting of undergraduate assistant and associate deans and directors of advising, I opened the floor for conversation about the issues that were on my colleagues’ minds.  “What,” I asked, “is taking the majority of your time right now, and what are you most worried about?”  A theme quickly emerged:  We spend a great deal of time and energy managing the effects of uncertainty, and we are worried for ourselves and for the people with whom we work about the anxieties created by this uncertainty.

 

There is tremendous uncertainty all around us right now.  We are in the midst of a closed presidential search that follows the sudden resignation of a long-serving president.  Given the Nassar scandal, a large settlement agreement with some of the survivors, and ongoing investigations into activities by former university leaders, MSU community members are reasonably concerned about the future of the university.  Nationally, institutions of higher education face unprecedented new economic challenges as demographic shifts substantially reduce the numbers of students graduating from high schools in many states and political challenges to the nature and place of higher education in America seem to be intensifying.  At the same time, the national and international political environments have grown even more polarized and less civil.  It seems that at every level – across the campus and around the globe – uncertainty is commonplace.

 

The weight of this uncertainty and fear was evident in our conversation at UGAAD.  I heard my colleagues express their concerns about not just themselves, but about their co-workers, the people they supervise, and of course, students.  They worry about fatigue and about the unseen personal and social costs of everything we have and continue to experience.  Their love and appreciation for MSU – and a deep sadness – was obvious.

 

Recognizing these feelings and acknowledging their impact on our work and on our students is a necessary step in managing their impacts.  While we all have responsibilities to fulfill, taking a business-as-usual approach during these difficult times will result in unpredictable and undesirable problems for our community.  So, as hard as it was to hear the people express their pain and frustrations, I was happy to know that they were willing and able to share them.

 

In the midst of all of this uncertainty and anxiety, I have also found cause for hope.  Over the last fifteen months I have seen my colleagues nurture an inclusive, values-driven culture at MSU.  I have seen this work done among the deans, within the Office of the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education and the Office of the Provost, and in MSU’s undergraduate student learning and success community.  These are the places where I have spent much of my time lately, but they certainly are not the only places where this has happened.  More broadly, I have seen a return of a sense of safety and accountability that has been brought on by the thoughtful leadership of Acting President Satish Udpa.  Upon taking office, he urged us to “promise to do better tomorrow than we did yesterday,” because “to do any less is a disservice to our conscience.”

 

My hopes for MSU are also buoyed by the tremendous progress we have made in the last year.  We rebuilt our orientation program from the ground up to be even more inclusive and more effective at successfully launching new students’ academic careers at MSU.  We have completed a massive reform of our gateway mathematics courses and eliminated MTH1825, and student outcomes after the first semester show substantial improvement.  We have committed ourselves to replacing a decades-old student information system so that we will be better able to support our students’ progress toward their degrees, and we have begun that work with a spirit of collaboration and at an amazingly rapid pace.  We welcomed the largest and most diverse class of entering students in the university’s history, and they finished their first semester with a record low probation rate.  We have laid the groundwork for the implementation of flat-rate tuition in a fair, equitable, and fiscally-responsible manner.

 

Even more inspiring than our colleagues’ accomplishments has been the manner in which they have accomplished them.  They have taken a values-based approach by asserting a blunt and transparent articulation of the values they will pursue and the outcomes they hope to achieve with their work.  Doing so has, in no small measure, allowed us to begin to advance Acting President Udpa’s call to “learn from the past and improve in the future.”


Feedback and suggestions, especially from the MSU community, welcome: email largent@msu.edu.

Mark Largent is the Interim Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education and Interim Dean of Undergraduate Studies at Michigan State University.