A few days ago, I heard birds chirping outside my window. I was glad to hear them. They are harbingers of good weather. They bring hope of warmth, of summer, of fall foliage and of the sun, rising like a big bright yellow ball of fire, out of Seneca Lake, throwing dazzling luminous rays on its blue waters.
They also signal the passage of time. This is a very good time for us as a community. A confluence of great events provides a unique opportunity for reflection and action as we build on the past and look to the future. In the last two years, we have welcomed 33 new colleagues in tenure-track lines. We continue to do well in normed surveys with regards to student-faculty interactions. We have also been undergoing a review of our academic programs with external reviewers. These have been very helpful in pointing out both incredible strengths in several of our academic programs and disciplines, but also issues that require attention. What has been particularly helpful is that they have also suggested ways forward, which many departments/programs have already begun to adopt.
Another opportunity presents itself in the Middle States self-study for re-accreditation. The self-study is essentially backward looking and provides good context. It asks us to describe our programs and processes and to provide evidence that each supports our stated institutional mission, and to show that we assess them with a view to continuous improvement, and ultimately, to prove that we are an effective and efficient organization that delivers on its promise to students and their families, and to those who employ our students after they graduate. The ultimate purpose of accreditation is to verify the quality of our academic programs and the quality of the educational experiences that we provide our students outside the classroom. We will submit the self-study to a committee of our peers for their review.
A third opportunity for me has been the unexpected benefit of describing the institution and who we are to the many candidates who have interviewed for different faculty positions this academic year. In describing who we are, I have been able to look at the institution somewhat objectively, in terms of both our strengths and challenges. I have shared with candidates information and highlights about our study abroad programs, our service learning and community engagement opportunities, the Centennial Center for Leadership, the Center for Teaching and Learning, the Salisbury Center for Career Services and Professional Development and the Finger Lakes Institute. I also shared information about our stewardship of our place in Geneva, most recently articulated in the Geneva 2020 program.
My most enjoyable conversations with the candidates centered on academic programs. I began by stating that we have no general education curriculum, but rather, we have the eight goals and first year seminars. I explained that the structure gives agency to students to acquire them throughout the curriculum, by taking courses or combinations of courses and/or credit bearing academic experiences that impart the skills espoused by the goals. It breaks down for me when I get to the point of how we currently assess the goals and how we ensure that every student has achieved them at levels with which we are comfortable as an institution. I was happy to share with them the fact that all permanent faculty members have the opportunity, and indeed an obligation, to teach a first year seminar. Every candidate, without exception was fascinated by our interdisciplinary programs and the manner in which interdisciplinarity is woven into the structure of our curriculum. They were captivated by the fact that our students must study in at least two areas before they can graduate, and by the fact that at least one must be disciplinary, where they gain depth; and the other interdisciplinary, where they acquire breath of knowledge; and the fact that our faculty routinely teach across disciplines. They were impressed by the level of collaborative work that goes on among the faculty. While some did not quite understand it, they were fascinated by our egalitarian step system for faculty pay. They liked that we have Academic Opportunity Programs and that we are getting ready to welcome our first group of POSSE Scholars.
Bringing the focus back to current community members, it does not surprise me that there is near-consensus on the need for a comprehensive review of our curriculum. While many of our programs are undertaking a review of their individual curricula, it is time to look at the structure of the whole, to help students make sense of the thread that runs through it, how it relates to them and how they relate to their world. Rapid changes are taking place all around us, and in higher education in particular. The last time we had a comprehensive review, there was no iPod, no You Tube, no twitter, no Toyota Hybrid cars, and certainly, no nanowire batteries. Social media had not become a force for change. There were no MOOCs. Digital pedagogies were not common place.
This is our chance to be bold. Everything should be open to discussion. We should play to our strengths and move our institution into the twenty-first century by utilizing available technologies to free up more of our time to do the person-to person interaction at which we excel. Our discussions should not be limited to the content of the curriculum, but should extend to its pedagogy and modes of delivery. We should review our menu of offerings to make it responsive to the needs of contemporary society. We should talk about the timing of the delivery as well and find ways to build a hierarchical structure amongst our courses.
Why don’t we intentionally incorporate research into all disciplines, including those in the arts, humanities and social sciences? Why not embed the making of art into our curriculum? Why don’t we teach writing across the curriculum? And why can we not test the acquisition of these skills by requiring a capstone project in all our disciplines and programs? And we should embrace assessment. We already do it but we must find a way to develop what we do into coherent plans that allow us to produce graduates who we are confident embody our definition of a Hobart and William Smith education, and who can converse with the best professionals in their discipline in an intelligent fashion.
I am realistically optimistic about the future. This optimism is borne out of the strength and quality of HWS faculty, staff and students. It is also borne out of the knowledge that what we do is important and needed. Not too long ago, I was part of a group that visited technology companies on the West Coast. Most of the top management team members have liberal arts backgrounds and they are proud of the fact. One told us they are looking for good communicators who are also critical thinkers. Another told us that our students come with great souls. More than one person told us our students would be exceptional if they came with strong analytical skills as well as knowledge of basic technological tools for handing data.
As we move into the conversation about the curriculum, I am mindful of the significant efforts and dedication of the entire faculty. Although we have much work to do, we enter this period from a position of strength, as evidenced in the following summary highlights from some of our departments and programs, as well as some academic support units.
Dean of Faculty and Provost