Board of Trustees Remarks

Catherine A. Rigsby, Chair of the Faculty

May 5, 2006


In the field of economics there is a seminal work entitled “The Tragedy of the Commons” (by Garrett Hardin).”  You probably all know of it.


This work describes common grazing areas for the sheep of various towns, and how, by considering the needs of the entire community, the commons provided everyone grazing sheep with what they needed.  


The “tragedy” comes in when one individual or a group of individual sheep owners decides that their use of the commons is more important than all others.  When this happens, the “community” becomes defined by a self-interested few; hence the new “common good” excludes those who believe in the benefit of the commons to the entire community.


The idea of the commons and the common good is, essentially, the idea of people working together for the greater good of all.


We can think of our public university is a grand commons.  With the university as a commons, if its permanent members (the faculty, the administration, the staff, and even you – the board of trustees) to use if as a place for self-interested goals, the result is a diminishment of the function of that commons, much in the same way the grazing quality of a town commons is degraded – the result is a lower quality for all who are using the space (the institution).  Although the university remains intact – the physical structure, the people, even the budgets and policies are still here – our institution becomes less productive when it is given over to self-interested use.   


Sometimes in our quest to be the best – the best in athletics, the best in a specific discipline, the best in research – we focus on the being the best at all at all costs.  In doing so, we diminish the core strengths of our institution – the academic teaching and service mission.


We are here, as we all know, primarily to train new minds – to train students to run the world of tomorrow. (We saw an excellent example of some of those minds this morning, when the “Succeed Sooner” graduates visited us.)  The only thing that really matters in the long run is that we are contributing to the education of literate, thoughtful citizens who can go out into the world – with knowledge of art, literature, history of science and the skills and critical thinking ability to use that knowledge – and make positive contributions to the common good.


This is not to say that we should not strive to be the best at on or many things.  But, it does say that, as a public university, we must remember our core missions of teaching and service – that these missions must not be consumed by our quest to be the university that produces the most nurses or teachers, or that has the fastest time to graduation, or the highest scores on the ball field, or even the university with the best research faculty in the state.


As you know, I am a researcher.  As such, I fell comfortable in this admonishment – because I, too, sometime have to remind myself that it is not all about the research.  I have to remind myself of our core mission.  


But I am fortunate because I face students on a regular basis – in the classroom, in the field, and in the lab.  This is a strong reminder of that core mission.  And my experiences with students reminds me that my research, although it certainly contributes to my ability as a teacher, is not the central in the minds of students – that the fundamentals of their knowledge are much more important than the specific details of my own work.


As an example, if when I teach classes on petroleum geology I have had students play the “oil game” - a multidimensional game in which students explore for hydrocarbons.  If, during the course of this game, it becomes obvious that the students do not understand the relationship between the state and federal agencies and their geological exploration for oil and gas, I must stop and make of point of helping them understand.  Although my research in sedimentology and stratigraphy would help them understand where the oil and gas might be found, that alone will not allow them to succeed because in the oil game (as in life outside the classroom) it is necessary to understand the interrelationships among academic understand and practice.  So I must (especially in undergraduate course) back off a bit and make sure my students understand how and why the scientific content of the course fits into a larger context.  This is why all ECU faculty must teach – and why we must teach the whole student.  We must help our students become thinking members of society who understand both the academic material and how it fits into the world they will someday lead.


We’re making great strides at ECU, but we must be careful not to restrict the values by which our university is defined.  We must no hold scholarship hostage to some narrowed construction of the academy (e.g., to numbers of published articles, grant dollars and other quantifiable entities).   It is only by continually recombining the way we think about and present our science, social science, art, etc. – by collaborations and cooperation among the disciplines – will we overcome self-interest and achieve the greater good.


In this, my last appearance before the board, I urge us all to not succumb to the tragedy of the commons – to, instead, work together for that greater good.  And we must help our students do the same.  When I think or hear about the “Tragedy of the Commons” my mind always wanders to a less scholarly presentation of the idea – “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one, or the few” (as Mr. Spock put it in one of the of Star Trek movies) – and I am reminded that we accomplish our teaching mission best when we translate our scholarly endeavors into terms our students can understand and use when they go out into the world.  




Our new faculty officers (who will come into office in July and whom some of you meet last night) exemplify the kind of faculty who understand and work to avoid the tragedy of the commons.  I want to take a few minutes to tell you about each of them now.


Our Secretary-elect is Professor Dale Knickerbocker or the Foreign Languages and Literature department.  Dale studies 20th century Spanish narratives, fantasy literature, and literary theory.  He is a well-published researcher and he chair a major division of an national professional organization of science fiction and fantasy literature.  In addition to teaching and doing research in his subject area, he also works to help students find study abroad opportunities (because he understands the importance of a broad culture education) and he teaches course in Spanish for business communication (because he acknowledges the importance of translating academic skills into societally useful outcomes).  Dale got his BA and MS degrees at Illinois State University and his PhD at SUNY Stony Brook.


Our Vice-Chair-elect is Professor DeeDee Glascoff of the College of Health and Human Performance.  This will be DeeDee’s 3rd year as vice chair, so most of you already know her.  Still, I’ll remind you of what she does.  DeeDee teaching and does research and service is in community health education.  I am not a service learning person and ECU is not a land grant university, but to me Dee Dee’s work very similar to the kind of community service that is the hallmark of land-grant universities. DeeDee works on major grants with many collaborators.  She does not necessarily always do what would be considered pure research.  Instead, she translates the research of others into useable/understandable terms and takes it out into the field – to communities and practitioners who need the information.  This is a major way in which ECU as a university can contribute to the region.  It is a excellent example of the kind of service we could be doing more of to fulfill our core mission.  DeeDee went to school at the University of Mississippi, Mississippi University for Women, and West Virginia University (where she earned her doctorate).


Our Chair-elect is Professor Mark Taggart of the School of Music.  Mark is an extraordinary composer.  His music as it is often described, “explores the limits of human emotion.”  This description is excellent!  Mark is passionate and energetic. He is an excellent teacher (who spent the last 2 days listening to student final exams!) and a constant and vocal supporter of both students and faculty.  And he is an ardent believer in the concept of the greater good.  He also runs about 35 miles a week – so you won’t be able to get away from him!  I think the board will enjoy working with Mark.  I have no idea what he’ll stand up here and say to you, but I know that Mark is a good person with best interests of the entire university in his mind and in his heart.  I urge you to listen to him!


Thank you.