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Pieces of Eight

Smith Urges Faculty to Give Students 'Sense of Place'

Following are excerpts from remarks by ECU Provost James LeRoy Smith at the 2006 Faculty Convocation held in Wright Auditorium Aug. 21.

Alan White handed me a copy recently of Donald Kennedy’s excellent book entitled Academic Duty, published in 1997. Among the many insights this former president of Stanford provides is the following challenge: “To the future professoriate, I will say only that you are entering a life full of interesting challenges – and the most important mission that can be found in a modern society. The university is above all else about opportunity: the opportunity to give others the personal and intellectual platform they need to advance culture, to preserve life, and to guarantee a sustainable human future. Could anything possibly matter more than that?”

James LeRoy Smith

No, nothing could matter more. The only solution to the national challenge in higher education is to convey to our students a sense of place…a sense of a place from which they can lead – the competence to do so, the will to do so, and the example of your doing so. Their self- possession is at stake, their sense of identity.

The authors of “Leadership Reconsidered,” … confirms these very points….That we are not nationally where we should be is delineated in other national studies. For example Derek Bok’s analysis in Our Underachieving Colleges, published this year, in which he claims we do not take advantage of the best research on how students learn. Dr. Ballard mentioned Harry Lewis’ book Excellence without Soul, … an excellent companion book to president Bok’s wherein we see the marginalization of the undergraduate even at Harvard – Lewis was dean of Harvard College from 1995-2003 – where he observes the professoriate pursuing specialization reputations and stature among the top 300 readers of the most prestigious journals to the point of looking past their undergraduate students.

Meanwhile, there is silence at Harvard on what it means to lead a human life and what our students just might need to help them do that. As Dean Lewis says, you can sit in most classrooms at Harvard and have no sense whatsoever as to where you are. Where is the sense of place at Harvard, of all places?

To the beginning faculty this morning I say, there is a sense of place at East Carolina University. As we reflect on this public university and at our institutional level for a moment, I believe you can find in our history that we are the university of the people of North Carolina….From the first moment that Robert Wright came across the coastal plain into this town, this school has been dedicated to access, to forming partnerships that affect the lives of the people of this region and beyond, and to providing the best kind of economic development there is, namely the creation of human capital in the lives of the graduates of this place that have gone on to show the world that leaders are developed here, that the people who come here and work hard, will know how to be, and not just how to do. I will mention only 6 basic areas that we are accelerating for the good of the whole and which should make your job more effective:

  1. We are continuing to improve shared governance at ECU, where we have at least since the 1960s been seen as a leader in the state and beyond. A special example for last and this upcoming year is how we are improving the status of our fixed term faculty. There will be a day-long shared governance workshop sponsored by the academic council and the Faculty Senate on Oct. 13 for chairs, directors, and faculty personnel and tenure committee chairs. We can collaborate to make these processes even better.

  2. We are continuing to achieve budget transparency at ECU. Those of us who oversee budgets should share information, invite collective improvement of all related processes, and share rationales for the decisions we make. These steps improve community, advance the sense of the value of our place, and give all of us a sense of belonging and commitment to what we do together.

  3. We are full of hope –speaking of enabling officers – that Mickey Dowdy is with us to help lead the university advancement offices for the good of the order. As the chancellor has said, funding is a tall order for us and will only get taller in the years ahead.

  4. We are a research institution and we are fortunate to have the continuing leadership of Dr. Mageean as we improve the support offices and the funding streams even while we still care about our undergraduates. Working together with Dr. Pellicane, we will all strive to improve our continuing work in graduate student support and a careful, rational and planned process for graduate academic program development. We will do all of this, please, while still finding time to speak with our undergraduates.

  5. We must advance also, while excelling in research, a kind of social-advancement package if leadership is our focus. As Parker Palmer says so eloquently in his thoughts on vocation, “if community is what we are about, then leadership is everyone’s business....” This “package” would combine our concerns with student volunteer work, with service learning where those areas are and can be developed, with advancing at all times a dialogue on the meaning and value of diversity that is consistent with human and humane rights and duties, with the value of globalization and internationalization both in the curriculum and in the opportunities we provide our students. For example, what Rosina and Elmer and others have done in the global classroom makes this place the world and the world this place.

  6. Lastly, the planning work you have done and will complete this year will be valuable and used. The university level statement will be completed this fall and division and college and school plans will connect in central ways. The key here is this: if your department or school is not speaking together to delineate your best thoughts on goals where you work, who will? My 37 years here gives me an answer: no one!

    But more importantly, no one else should. As you discuss the university level document just distributed, see where that directs you. Other things can direct you also. There is room for that in this process. Incidently, there is a planning story that comes from Harry Lewis’ book (Excellence without Soul). It seems that Harvard University got by without a mission statement from its founding in 1650 all the way up to 1995.…As Dr. Lewis says in his conclusion to Excellence without a Soul, “Harvard strives to be the best at many things, and it often succeeds. But Harvard has protected its reputation for excellence at the expense of its sense of a larger purpose. Harvard’s leaders have allowed the school’s mission to drift from education to customer satisfaction. For them Harvard is no longer a city upon a hill but merely a brand name....”

East Carolina University has always been and will remain “a city on this coastal plain” for all of those who have come here and continue to come here to find their lives changed and their futures brightened....East Carolina University will never become only a brand name, but rather a name that those who pass through here keep on their tongues as they do in their hearts that this school is indeed their alma mater, their nourishing mother...This is our charge, this is our opportunity, this is our ennobling duty...On the personal level to our beginning faculty, I say:

• Remember that teaching without excellence in research is empty, but also that research without excellence in teaching is blind.

• Remember that in a public university, service within and without is a rewardable core function.

• Remember that this public university is a special place to thousands who have come before.

• Remember that we have a past to honor here, and we have a duty to do so.

• Remember that we have the opportunity to be present-with our students in life-changing ways.

• This year is now our time, this place is now our place.

• Do well – let us work well together – and have a great year!

This page originally appeared in the Sept. 1, 2006 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at