In my remarks to our new students, at Convocation, I reminded them of the opportunity to not only read this year’s summer book, A Deadly Wandering by Matt Richtel, but also to take time to reflect on its messages and the brilliant ways in which the author combines perspectives and disciplines to narrate and explain, to explore and challenge, to warn and to wonder. It is a book for our time and for our generation of students.
Change is necessary and inevitable. But it does not need to be resented or resisted. We should resent only circumstances that allow others around us to adapt but prevent us from doing the same. When confronted with our changing world, if we choose not to respond – not to adapt – decisions affecting our future are taken away from us and made by others.
With external forces of change multiplying and becoming stronger, it is that much more important that we do not impose additional constraints (obstacles) upon ourselves. We can choose to adapt or choose to be left behind. Our conviction, stubbornness, or failure to act will not slow the pace of change in our world.
A good book comforts us. A great book challenges us. This year’s first-year reading selection, “The Sixth Extinction” by Elizabeth Kolbert, is a great book.
This book opened our eyes, engaged our minds, expanded our thinking, at times shrunk our significance, contextualized our evolution and our existence, and reminded us of both our fragility and our ephemeral nature. It also made us uncomfortable, uneasy, and uncertain at times. I can’t imagine a university’s first-year reading selection, or any book, doing more than that.
The last decade has seen considerable energy and enthusiasm for mash-ups between the STEM disciplines and the Liberal Arts disciplines, with motivations ranging from practical to political, obvious to opportunistic, and sensible to silly. Many colleges and universities, government agencies, and professional societies have set in motion substantial discourse around this fruitful topic. I have had the privilege and opportunity to weigh-in on the value of new pedagogies and degree programs, and to offer opinions – informed through my experience as a faculty member, department head, dean, and provost – on trends in higher education more broadly. Here, I offer some observations and personal commentary on some of the discussions surrounding STEM and the Liberal Arts.
The First-Year Reading for UVM students this year, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman, challenges us to think beyond what we know about human health and healing, to open our minds to cultures and cultural beliefs vastly different than our own, and to consider that western medical practices and beliefs – while grounded in science – may be even more effective when practiced in parallel with the healing practices and beliefs of other cultures. But perhaps more than anything, this book looks carefully and critically – with compassion but without bias – at some of the greatest challenges and cultural failures of our society, those surrounding the practice of medicine and healing.
In my role as Provost, I am fortunate to have occasion to promote and celebrate the many accomplishments of our faculty, staff, and students. These range from academic and scholarly achievements, to successes and innovations in pedagogy, to impactful community and statewide engagement. This week’s release of Humanities, a beautiful new publication of the UVM Humanities Center, is just such an occasion and I intend to take full advantage of it!
Humanities describes many of the exciting activities underway in the humanities and fine arts and demonstrates the rich diversity of scholarly productivity, creative works, and high-impact teaching and learning taking place at the University of Vermont.
Adapted from remarks at the 2014 Annual Meeting of the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities (APLU), Orlando, FL.
National four-year public universities have, per student, increased tuition revenues by less than they have lost in state appropriations, while simultaneously keeping educational and related expenses flat (over the period 2006-2011, adjusted for inflation). In other words, public universities are receiving less support from their states, and are not relying on increases in tuition to make up for this decrease in state funding. All universities are taking steps to reduce expenses and contain costs.
Steven Johnson’s book “The Ghost Map” was selected this year for reading by all incoming first-year students at the University of Vermont. This was a wonderful selection, for which I congratulate and thank the first-year book selection committee. I enjoyed this book on many levels. It spoke to my interests in the history of science, the role of science in informing policy, disruptive technologies and disruptive thinking, communication and presentation of information, engineering and public health.I also love a great mystery. As I reflected on the book, the messages it contained, and the author’s way of telling this remarkable story, it occurred to me that “The Ghost Map” can serve remarkably well as “a road map” for our students during their time at the University of Vermont.
“The Ghost Map”– part detective novel, part history of science, part social theory, and part futurist – beautifully describes the unraveling of the mystery of the deadly cholera outbreaks in London in the mid-1800’s. It is also the story of a remarkable time in human history, the foundation of the world’s public health systems, the conflict between emerging scientific and prevailing social theories, and even the underpinnings of today’s broad-based liberal education models.
As I reflected on the book, the messages it contained, and the author’s way of telling this remarkable story, it occurred to me that “The Ghost Map” could serve exceedingly well as “a road map” for how we prepare and inspire our students, vision and re-envision our curricular and degree offerings, and even how we posit the University of Vermont as a distinctive and impactful land grant university.
Universities and colleges are constantly being challenged to define a diversity agenda, speak to the ever growing importance of ensuring diversity in their organizations, build culture and community that both reflects and fosters diversity, and demonstrate progress towards measurable diversity goals. Academic institutions seek diversity in the broadest sense and across the broadest spectrum of definitions. We must embrace diversity not as a set of constraints, but as a strategic priority that has inclusiveness at its core. Doing anything less is not realizing the full potential of the University, and therefore not maximizing its impact, as an institution, on our world.