Perspectives on the University
Fall Convocation and
Institutional Values Awards
John A. Fallon, III
Good morning. I consider myself privileged to be here today to help the University honor three individuals and two teams that have been selected to receive the University’s 2005 Institutional Values Awards. And, I am honored to serve an institution that includes such people in its community.
Celebrating values is something we do far too little of these days, yet I think most would agree that values are more than mere words, they define how we live our lives. Values help us to choose to do the right things, and only by doing the right things can we attain the excellence that we speak about so often. So, I salute our winners today for choosing to do the right things and doing them in an exemplary manner.
Several weeks ago when I saw this ceremony booked on my schedule, I assumed that my presence would be ornamental and my role would be largely ceremonial, with little need for serious forethought or planning. Imagine my surprise when I learned that it was expected that the President would present something of a State of the University address as part of this program.
My first reaction was, YIKES. As someone who is just starting his 68th day at EMU, who still gets turned-around in Pray-Harrold, and has yet to master the institutional codes and vernacular and rhythms and norms, I thought it a bit too presumptuous to think I could deliver a believable State of the University address.
As I sought input as to what the nature of my comments might address, more than one person advised me to just, “Give my honest perspectives on what I had experienced at EMU thus far and where I think we need to go.”
That seemed doable enough. Although I must tell you that it also makes me just a bit nervous, for as Thomas Sovell wrote, “There are only two ways of telling the complete truth–anonymously and posthumously.” And standing before you, you can see I am neither.
However, trusting that honesty is always the best policy, I would like to spend a few minutes presenting my perspectives on what I have heard and seen in my first 67 days as President of Eastern Michigan University, and what I see as the possibilities and opportunities before us.
My first several weeks have been interesting, informative and, admittedly, nearly exhausting.
I want to thank everyone at the University and in the community for the warm welcome Sidney and I have received. We have had the opportunity to meet many of you personally, and look forward to meeting more of you at the all-campus picnic next Wednesday.
I also want to thank everyone who contributed to a great fall semester beginning. Your commitment to our students–at every level of the University–is remarkable. This is, I believe, the single best defining characteristic of Eastern Michigan University.
I firmly believe that at our core–the essential, mission-critical work among students, faculty and co-curricular staff–we are rock solid.
We have a rich history as a learner-centered institution that adds great value to its students. People at every level of the University boast, and lament, about how EMU does more with less than anyplace they have ever worked. I have learned this is possible because people lovewhat this University stands for, and they are willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done. Our students are hard-working and care deeply about the institution, the community and one another.
EMU has many great programs. They fill an important educational niche in Michigan and provide students with the intellectual skills and practical experiences they will need to be successful in their careers and lives, and to be good citizens.
Examples of quality are everywhere. Our academic programs are fully accredited by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools and more than 30 professional associations.
We have an incredible Undergraduate Research Symposium that is envied widely and now is replicated throughout the nation. And we have robust service learning and student volunteer programs. Through our theatre, art and music programs we provide student performance and community social and cultural opportunities. Our faculty is doing important research–research that is helping business, industry, government, schools and communities to serve us all better.
And others have noticed. For the third consecutive year, the Princeton Review named EMU a “Best Midwestern College.” Kaplan Publishing named EMU one of the “367 Most Interesting Colleges,” in the 2006 Edition of Newsweek’s “America’s Hottest Colleges.” U.S. News and WorldReport consistently recognizes our commitment to diversity, and Black Issues in Higher Education magazine ranked EMU first among Mid-American Conference schools in the number of degrees granted to African-American students.
And yet I sense, and have experienced—and this is where honesty gets a little uncomfortable—elements of the University’s culture that I find unsettling both personally and professionally . . . elements that seem to trap the University in a surreal melodrama and divert time and energy from important, high-priority tasks.
Perhaps it is because the institution was “once burned,” that it is
“twice shy,” in extending its trust, but I have encountered a pervasive amount of “we’re OK, they’re NOT,” while visiting departments across the campus.
While competition is important, even valuable, in a large and complex organization, this attitude transcends competition and approaches a level of contentiousness that is unhealthy and certainly a barrier to achieving what I believe to be the remarkable Promise of EMU.
In too many of our own people, I have encountered a negative orientation that I find, frankly, somewhat baffling. Not only do they see the glass half empty, some even refuse to recognize the glass. Can we disagree? You bet—in fact we must. Do we need to be disagreeable? My answer to that question is unequivocal: NO.
Clearly, the institution, its people and its programs are not perfect. You would be hard pressed to find any organization that was. Our facilities are old. They need repair. We are understaffed. We need more money–lots more money. But, so what? I am absolutely convinced we can manage those obstacles. The real threat, as the great philosopher Pogo would tell us, “is that the enemy, frequently, is us.”
We need to become possibility thinkers. We are a great institution–with great people–who ARE doing great things and who are going to do even greater things. We have no reason to be timid. We need to expect, even demand, that our voice be heard at the policy table, at budget discussions and at all levels of conversation regarding the future. To achieve that, we have to believe in ourselves, and act differently. “Big thinking,” Wilferd Peterson tells us, “precedes great achievement.” An old friends of mine—Hattie Harrison, a former member of the Maryland House of Delegates from Baltimore—was fond of saying, “If you can believe, you can conceive. If you can conceive, you can achieve.”
Is this going to be easy? Of course not. But, look on this stage. These people we are honoring today all faced challenges in their jobs–but they looked for a way to make things happen, not for reasons why they could not.
I am a true believer in the words of John Scully in that, “The future belongs to those who see possibilities before they become obvious.”
Eastern Michigan University’s future is inextricably tied to our ability to see and pursue opportunities and possibilities–to learn faster than the competition. To accelerate our ingenuity in word and deed. To be more audacious.
Nowhere is that more evident than in our need to be more entrepreneurial; to meet our students, corporate learners, donors and employers at the point of their need, not ours.
Fortunately, we have many successful models within the University from which to learn. ICARD, the Center for Product Development, Continuing Education, the Coatings Research Laboratory, even the Melissa Mail Project you are going to hear about later, are entrepreneurial approaches to service delivery.
Declining state support for higher education isn’t a blip on the radar, it’s our new reality. To thrive, not just survive, we must become more effective at leveraging scarce human and financial resources, regardless of their point of origin within the institution. And in finding new resources to support our research, teaching and service mission.
We have to think of the enterprise as ALL of us, not just our little corner of the world . . . “we must be THE place where there is a desire to continuously improve our programs and services, not fear change; where there is outward respect for all staff members; where communication is welcomed; and where even if people don't like each other on a personal level, they work together in a respectful, collegial way for the good of the institution.”
In other words, we have got to regain our focus. I can’t tell you the number of times people have said to me, “my plate is so full I think it’s going to crack under the weight of everything I have to do.” I understand. I think it’s time we take a look at everything we are doing, and make the tough decisions to take some things off our plate . . . to do the things that we do best, and to let others do the rest . . . to look at programs that are good, and that with just a little bit of help could be great . . . to give them that help. These are tough decisions, but as Mr. Disney would remind us, “It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.” We should let our sister institutions continue down the path of doing more with less. Our path should lead to actually doing less with less, but at a significantly higher level of quality. Over time, in a way not appreciably different than the race between the tortoise and the hare, our institutional star will rise faster and more consistently that our sisters’.
I am also lead-pipe certain that most of the dissatisfaction and discouragement I have heard expressed are not caused by the absence of things, but by the absence of vision. A compelling vision—one that galvanizes interest, motivates behavior and positions us not only to survive, but win.
To that end, today I am announcing the launch of a shared visioning initiative to be co-chaired by Daryl Barton, the head of the Faculty Council, and me. What is a shared vision? I think Peter Senge captured it best when he said, “A shared vision is not an idea . . . it is rather, a force in people’s hearts . . . at its simplest level, a shared vision is the answer to the question, ‘What do we want to create?” I can’t tell you anything else about the process, because that has yet to be fully invented. But, I can tell you that it will be inclusive, and have a goal of creating a shared vision for the University that each and every one of us can understand, own and commit to helping become a reality. And, as I’ve shared with many over the past two months, we will know that we’ve done this successfully when 10 out of any 10 of us will provide the same answers to the questions: What is Eastern Michigan University? Where precisely is it headed? What specifically will it intend to achieve? We’ll know that we’ve done this when we know, with some precision, how we conceive what Jim Collins referred to in his book “Good to Great” as our Hedgehog concept: What we are absolutely passionate about. What drives our economic engine. What we can be world-class at.
I also am pleased to announce this morning that the University has been notified recently that it will be receiving a $1 million gift. The donors, who wish to remain anonymous, have indicated it is their wish that the gift be used for a purpose of “significance.” It is my hope that we will be able to utilize a portion of that gift to leverage opportunities to develop new revenue streams for the University. This could be an exciting initiative and help address values that we all treasure. And when we are successful at this we will part company with many of our sister institutions by leveraging our ingenuity, our audacity, our vision and our entrepreneurial spirit to achieve a measure of distinction that is unprecedented here. It is toward this day that I commit every waking moment of my time here.
To all, thank you for being here this morning and for allowing me to share my Perspectives on the University. I am fervent in my belief that Eastern Michigan University has the values, the people and the will to achieve the institutional excellence exemplified by this very event.
To our awardees, I extend heartfelt congratulations. You have set the bar a bit higher for all of us and for that, we are grateful. We will look to you for continued leadership as together we forge a common vision and Pursue the Promise that is EMU.
Eastern Michigan University is a public, comprehensive university that offers programs in the arts, sciences and professions. EMU prepares students with the intellectual skills and practical experiences to succeed in their career and lives, and to be better citizens.
Editor's Note: Looking for an expert source for a story? Check out EMU's Eastern Experts online at www.emich.edu/univcomm/easternexperts.