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UWFox Hosts 2005 Campus Convocation

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The University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley hosted its annual campus convocation on Wednesday, September 7, at noon in the UWFox Fieldhouse. Dr. Jim Perry, campus executive officer and dean, was the featured speaker and his presentation was entitled, “The Liberal Arts College Experience: Change and Challenge.” The text of Dr. Perry’s presentation is presented in its entirety, below. He was introduced to the audience of faculty, staff, students and members of the community by Dr. Donald Meckiffe, chairperson of the UWFox Steering Committee and assistant professor of communication and theatre arts.

The UWFox Convocation traditionally kicks off the new academic year at the Menasha campus. The Convocation is also the unofficial first presentation in the campus’ acclaimed “Scholars Series,” which brings some of the nation’s outstanding experts in their respective fields to UWFox for presentations on wide range of topics and subjects.

UWFox is one of the 13 campuses that comprise the UW Colleges within the state-wide UW System, and specializes in the freshman-sophomore curriculum. The mission of the UW Colleges is to provide accessible, affordable and high quality courses primarily in the freshman/sophomore curriculum.

With a student body enrollment of nearly 1,700 students, UWFox also offers bachelor’s degree programs at the Menasha campus through collaborations with various baccalaureate campuses throughout the UW System.

“Liberal Arts Education: Change and Challenge”

Presented by Dr. James W. Perry

University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley Convocation

September 7, 2005

Dr. Meckiffe, Distinguished University of Wisconsin Faculty, Staff, Students, and, Friends.

Thank you for the kind introduction.

I am pleased to be able to welcome you to this 2005 Fall Convocation, marking the start of the new academic year. You’re hoping that this will be mercifully short and I am hoping that I have a message that will place the journey that second year students are continuing and first year students are beginning this week. Hopefully, I’ll be able to accommodate all of our desires.

Fall Convocation is a tradition at most small colleges and universities. University education is built around traditions, one of which is manifest in the attire that Dr. Meckiffe and I are wearing today – the traditional academic regalia. Far from an archaic symbol of the past, it reflects an egalitarian spirit and call to service. Clergy and judiciary wear robes that signify their own community responsibilities. Scholars do so similarly, to demonstrate our commitment to truth and our belief in the value of learning. The mace that Dr. Meckiffe carried symbolizes the authority to award academic degrees. One face of our mace shows our campus name. The other is inscribed with the Latin phrases “SEDES EXCELLENTIAE” translated to English as “Center for Excellence” and “SCIENTIA LIBERTA EST”, “Knowledge is Freedom. My addressing Dr. Meckiffe by his formal title is another tradition, one demonstrating respect for attaining the highest degree possible – higher than that of a medical doctor or a lawyer – the Doctor of Philosophy degree, abbreviated Ph.D. All of these traditions set the university apart from high school.

Dr. Jim Perry, Campus DeanOver the course of the year I will have many opportunities to speak with individual students, but this is my one chance to address all of you collectively, to share my perspective on education. The dean at a campus is the big picture person, so I offer what this big picture is all about.

Whether you are a traditional-aged student (17-22) or a non-traditional learner (someone 23 or older) the university experience is about developing richer lives. “Rich” has multiple meanings for a university graduate. There is the obvious increase in material wealth that is typical of those who earn bachelors, masters, medical, law, or doctoral degrees. National data support the notion that a person who attains a bachelor’s degree will earn a million dollars more over his or her working lifetime than someone who has no more than a high school diploma. But material wealth pales by comparison to the richness of knowledge that comes with a university education. Knowledge is freedom. And knowledge is power. This should be a life-altering experience for you.

You are part of the University of Wisconsin, one of the world’s premier systems of higher education. You are one of over 160,000 students spread over the 26 University of Wisconsin campuses. You are one of 12,279 UW Colleges students, students enrolled at the campuses where freshmen and sophomores receive private college-like attention and where teaching of beginning university learners is the most important enterprise.

I’m speaking to you today because I believe your journey can lead each and every one of you to the personal success to which you aspire. I commonly tell people I have the perfect job, because I am a prime example of what a university education in general, and the start that takes place at a UW Colleges campus like Fox can mean. In 1966 I was a first year undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Marathon County.

I’ll be the first to admit that things have changed drastically since 1966. But, on the other hand, college never changes much from pre-school. Both at pre-school and at college

Ø You cross the street without looking for cars.

Ø Snack time is a necessity.

Ø You bundle up for the outdoors without caring what you look like (because everyone else looks as stupid as you do).

Ø You stay at home and play games with your friends.

Ø You wear your backpack on both shoulders.

Ø Playing in the snow is a legitimate activity.

Ø You take naps.

Ø You look forward to grilled cheese sandwiches (that’s the most often ordered food item from our food service)

Like most of you, when I started my college education I was looking forward to identifying a major, a field in which I would specialize. Like many of you, I started as an undecided student. Well, maybe calculus helped me become more undecided. So there I was at a University of Wisconsin campus taking math and English and political science and … well, all those courses that seemed “general.” Not more than a week ago I saw one of our new students comment that Fox was a “good place to get your generals out of the way.”

The so-called “general education” that you are undertaking at Fox is better identified as liberal education, once the purview of only the wealthy and privileged.

Virtually none of the hundreds of thousands of students embarking on a liberal education knows what that means. Contrary to the typical use of the word “liberal” in our society, a liberal education has nothing to do with one’s political leanings. So what I want to do is begin this academic year laying the groundwork for what it means to be liberally educated.

President Woodrow Wilson said that the role of a liberal education was “To make a person as unlike his father as possible.” (Note the gender reference – thank goodness things have changed.)

James Freeman, President Emeritus of Dartmouth College interpreted Wilson’s comments this way: “What he meant, I think, is that a liberal education ought to make a person independent of mind, skeptical of authority, prepared to forge an identity for himself or herself, and capable of becoming an individual bent upon not copying other persons, even persons as persuasive and influential as one’s father.”

I can tell you that my days as a University of Wisconsin student did exactly that (especially the part about being ‘skeptical of authority’) and I certainly hope it will do the same for you, even if that authority is your campus dean.

Dr. Jim Perry, Campus DeanUniversity education is an experience in being taken outside the realm of comfort. We’re comfortable with what is familiar but learn from being outside our comfort zone. Thus, you are in for change and challenge. Ideas and opinions that were shaped by your family life and prior education will be challenged, not because your professors wish to change your mind, but because they want you to examine critically, from new perspectives, your long held beliefs. Many of us still go back to high school class reunions. What strikes me is just how very different I think compared to my classmates who did not gain a university education.

My greatest hope is that you will begin to think about big problems of our world. Your classroom experiences will start you on the path to considering the big issues, but UW Fox offers much more than just classroom learning. The UW Fox Scholars Series offers opportunity to hear about ideas and issues that likely you will not think about by just going to class. I can hardly wait to hear to hear Dr. Martin Wachs’ October 3 talk “Twelve Reasons to Raise the Gas Tax” given what has happened in the last few weeks. Look at the offerings that are listed in today’s convocation program. There are really intriguing ideas in the Scholars Series or that offered by the Campus Activities Board, who will host Dr. James Thomson, the UW-Madison researcher whose work on embryonic stem cells landed him on the cover of Time magazine.

The American Association of Colleges and Universities has challenged me to begin a conversation with you about the overall aims of your education. In essence, you can think of this as my asking you to think seriously about why you are here, investing a lot of time and a considerable amount of money.

There are different views of what education is all about. The utilitarian vision is that educated students serve the commercial and bureaucratic interests of society. An alternative view is one that sees education as means to create a more humane population, engaged in their communities. To loosely quote Marshall Gregory, an English professor at Butler University, “it matters less that every student who earns a bachelor’s degree has read a set of required texts, but rather that they know how to think more productively, more deeply, and more analytically about the moral, social, political, existential, domestic, religious, and philosophical issues” in any texts.

If you look at what makes up our Associate of Arts and Sciences degree, you see what may appear to be a random list of courses, but it is far from random. While imperfect, it seeks to ensure that students who leave Fox with that degree have the following:

Ø Knowledge of human cultures and the natural and physical world – social sciences, natural sciences, mathematics, humanities

Ø Intellectual and practical skills – written and oral communication, information literacy, teamwork and problem solving

Ø Integrative learning – ability to adapt knowledge, skills and responsibilities to new settings and questions

Ø Individual and social responsibilities – civic engagement, ethical reasoning

Liberal education used to mean “elite” education. But today, in the words of the president of the American Association of the Colleges and Universities, a liberal education is one that benefits all students and ultimately the whole of society. More precisely, President Geary Schneider says “liberal education is the best and most transformative resource for the lives students seek to lead, as human beings, as citizens, and participants in a dramatically changing world.”

Now it turns out that 60% of today’s undergraduates choose what are termed “pre-professional majors” such as business, education, engineering, nursing, or medicine. So is the liberal education that you are getting at Fox really all that worthwhile? Or is it an archaic remnant of higher education? Is President Geary Schneider just professing her own opinion?

National policy makers and business leaders opinions bolster our belief that what you will gain at Fox is very likely to be even more important than the specialized education you will receive in a major. Take for example the words of Roberts T. Jones, president of Education and Workforce Policy: “The value and benefits of a liberal education will be more respected and in greater demand as the world becomes increasingly complex … Employers do not want …students prepared for narrow workforce specialties. Rather the application of specialized knowledge will be more and more integrated within a broader range of sociopolitical environments that place a premium on judgment, communication, and analytical skills… The definition of liberal learning and liberal education for the twenty-first century includes not only exposure to the breadth of civilized society in an increasingly complex world, but also the absolute assurance that students possess the requisite general education competencies to apply learning in the constantly evolving world of work.”

Dr. Jim Perry, Campus DeanTo put this into fewer words, be prepared to work and for your professors to expect much of you, because they take seriously their role in preparing the leaders of your generation. At last fall’s Convocation we had as our keynote speaker Kathi Seifert, recently retired Executive Vice President from multinational Kimberly Clark. To put it bluntly, Ms. Seifert is a mover and a shaker in this community, and she is a woman who rocketed through the so-called glass ceiling that limits women from rising to the top of the corporate ladder. The title of her talk was “The Harder You Work, The Luckier You Get.” What Ms. Seifert was conveying to our gathering was that you have the ability to create your own future, and the output is directly correlated with the input. “Luck” really has little to do with success. Hard work has much to do with it.

So I ask you again, what are you here for? If you very anxious to get on with some major and still unconvinced that taking philosophy or political science or psychology or mathematics is a diversion from the real goal, I have another question for you: Will what you are here for still exist for you when you finish your undergraduate education? Unless you are 100% certain that change will not take place, perhaps you will want to consider how your courses will prepare you for dealing with a fast evolving world.

Consider that China and India and Chile are pulling ahead of the United States educationally and economically. The U.S. is now 6th in college attendance. Investments in research and development in these and other countries are now outstripping those of our country. We used to produce 61% of all research that results in new knowledge; now we have fallen to 29%. A thinking young adult should be very concerned about this. Indeed, as a middle-aged (I hope) educator, I am very concerned about it, if for no other reason than I care about the future of today’s young adults.

Your faculty are doing what they can to reverse these trends.

For example, in August six Fox faculty and I had the honor of attending a national conference that promotes course development dealing with science education and civic engagement. Our goal is, again in the words of the AAC&U president, “to invent a form of liberal education in which the world’s most significant challenges – contemporary and well as enduring –become a significant catalyst for new curricula … So conceived, liberal education is a necessity, not a luxury.”

Think of the problems of the world – war between people unlike one another, land use, homelessness, poverty, global warming, global energy demand, epidemic diseases. Only a multidisciplinary approach can address any of them. The answers will not be found in engineering or biology or political science or psychology alone. The organizer of our conference called AIDS and HIV “multidisciplinary trouble.” To understand HIV, one needs to understand basic biological concepts such as the structure of a virus and how it commandeers the cell’s protein-generating machinery for its own purposes. But that is far from enough to understand the disease that it causes. One must understand the psychological impact on the individual and his or her family. And the social impact on those affected. The economic impact for society as it seeks to treat the disease with very expensive drug cocktails. And sadly, the political decisions made that determine who will live with AIDS and who will die because of where they live or what color their skin might be.

Consider the absolute crisis that now exists in southern Louisiana and Mississippi as a result of hurricane Katrina. There is not a field of liberal arts that will not play a role in understanding and recovering from this disaster.

My final hope for you as you go about this year is that over the course of the next several years you will find a hero. It might be one of your faculty, or it might be someone you encounter in your liberal arts education. A hero is not just someone to be admired for their accomplishments, be they academic or not. Rather, a hero is someone who causes another to examine one’s life, to ask “Is this what I want to be known for?” “Am I living the life I want?” “When I am old and ready to return to stardust, will I be satisfied with what was my essence?”

And a hero is someone who changes one’s life. As an undergraduate, the author of A Sand County Almanac Aldo Leopold, changed mine. I connected. Like me, Leopold was an outdoorsman and an hunter. Leopold himself described the epiphany he had as he watched the life of a wolf end at his hands.

A turning moment occurred in the life of a young Jim Perry when I read the following paragraph: “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then and full of trigger itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean a hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”

I first read those words over 30 years ago, and I reread them again each year. Leopold caused me to rethink my outlook. He had changed my life forever. I started for the first time to really think deeply about how my actions affected my world. This is the stuff of heroes. And this is the stuff of a liberal education. Maybe you will find one in the substance of your UW-Fox faculty or staff. There are people of that quality at Fox.

So as we leave today’s ceremony, I challenge the faculty to challenge your students. I challenge the students to be not merely empty vessels to be filled, but to become engaged scholars of the liberal arts. And I extend to all of you my very best wishes for success in the 2005-2006 academic year.

Students and audience, we ask that you remain seated until the faculty and staff have recessed.

Happy New Year!

Posted 9/7/2005