LTTE: Airing concerns about the Thinkers

Jeremy Bendik-Keymer, Professor

The Provost’s Think Big strategic planning process will include Thinkers, people of our university whose answers to questions received the best evaluations by university leadership, faculty, administrative and students, and were then balanced for diversity before being selected. I’m excited to hear their ideas about the future of Case Western Reserve University. At the same time, I’ve heard some concerns about the process and have questions of my own.

One big concern was timing. Whether borrowing from models of industry disruption or not, the Thinkers process was launched quickly. It was difficult to make time for it. Schedules are often tight-knit plans balancing work with personal life. Being a Thinker involved making room in one’s spring schedule in a little over a month. Ultimately, this is why I decided I couldn’t apply. That made me wonder: how many good thinkers were never considered because they were thoughtful about prior obligations?

But there’s an answer to this. The Thinkers can draw on the people around campus who have experience, special knowledge and know-how in a given area and let these folks who are closest to the action regarding some part of the university’s mission shape their thinking. A good Thinker will listen to local know-how and expertise and be able to synthesize it.

Another concern was compensation. Being a Thinker involves regular meetings with the provost. While this will be an exciting opportunity, it will involve preparation. Thinkers are also expected to engage with the university around campus in as-yet-unspecified ways. So it seems being a Thinker is the work of a class, a time-consuming committee or a new program. Yet there was no mention of a course release being provided for faculty in a future semester, release time for staff or compensation for students.

The answer to this is to provide some form of compensation, stipend, course release, etc. going forward for Thinkers. The question on the application process about what the Thinkers might need to do their job opened the way for this, and I hope the Provost’s office makes some such arrangement for those who serve.

Lastly, the questions of people interested in being a Thinker made me think twice. After giving them a go, I realized that my answers felt forced. The first question was about the future of higher education by way of its challenges, possibilities and so on. The second question asked for a vision of CWRU a couple decades from now.

First, I do not think the main question we should be asking ourselves is what our industry future will be. Instead, I think we should ask, “What should we be doing as educators, learners and researchers?” To try to anticipate the future in order to adapt to it opportunistically is to turn things around. I think we should be asking what it is to do our work right before seeing what adaptation means. What would true integrity and excellence in our education be, and why?

Also, CWRU has a tendency to underestimate its own possibility. Students often look elsewhere and wonder what it is like to be in the Ivies, ignoring how much intelligence and earnestness there is here, rather than snobbish elitism. Faculty may wonder what a better research environment might be, not knowing and engaging with colleagues who do excellent work in their building or across the yard. CWRU has a tendency to get tangled up, failing to act as a team or a college. Questions that focus us outward may actually detract from working on our integrity and community within where something organic of our own may grow.

The second question did not sit well with me for a different reason. How can I, as one person, have a vision for a university that should be governed collectively by the faculty, responsive to student needs and mindful of staff and community concerns? These are all collective, deliberative matters, not the matters for a single visionary. The most acceptable vision for our institution in two decades will be the one that emerges from collective and deliberative processes that allow what we see around us to reflect what we think, collectively is best. What processes will allow us to create an institution together reflecting what we do best and realizing the know-how, knowledge and integrity we already have when we do things right in our studies, programs, centers, departments and units?

Overriding local, working knowledge with grand designs undermines quality. Those of us who work here often know best what would work in our areas of work. Rather than big visions that hover above us, I think processes that honor our local knowledge and particular expertise will do a better job of bringing out our excellence. This issue also relates to governance, which I don’t have the space to address here.

The new planning process is different than any I have seen in my time in academia or as an accreditor of other universities. We’re lucky that the process involves a spirit that is so inclusive and welcoming. Despite my concerns, I’m excited about what could come of the planning process as a collective and am going to get involved. I hope we all do and that the Thinkers are good synthesizers and listeners. May they take seriously how adaptation shouldn’t undercut standing for what education ought to mean, and may they see that our future is collective. It needs good processes that steward us patiently over time beyond the short process of next semester.

Jeremy Bendik-Keymer
Beamer-Schneider Professor in Ethics & Associate Professor of Philosophy