Purpose of Teaching

Inauguration Weekend: Innovation and Tradition

This weekend we celebrated the inauguration of Kathryn A. Morris as the 19th President of St. Lawrence University. I found it to be a hopeful and exciting event, and I look forward to Kate’s continued leadership. As well, the entire weekend reminded me of how much our trustees and alumni love this place and what SLU makes possible, and how important it is to balance a connection to tradition with a vision for the future of liberal education in these turbulent times. I firmly believe that Kate offers the leadership we need, and I also believe that we faculty must play a key role in sustaining connections to tradition while innovating in our classrooms and our curriculum.

With this in mind, I revisited Chris Marquart’s excellent UVM dissertation on living-learning communities at St. Lawrence. Of particular interest were the ways that our faculty were at the forefront of educational innovation. The FYP, living-learning communities, community-based learning: these were all very far ahead of their time.

I don’t want to engage in unhelpful nostalgia, but reading about SLU in the 1980s gave me a new appreciation for how hard it is to sustain an innovative spirit in higher education.

A name that came up several times in Marquart’s dissertation was Richard Guarasci, SLU professor and 18th President of Wagner College. He wrote an excellent (2006) article, “On the Challenge of Becoming the Good College,” one worth revisiting.

At the heart of Guarasci’s argument is that colleges need to continuously innovate, but educational changes must come from the passions and commitments of the faculty. Unfortunately, as Guarasci notes, “It might be said that two universal conditions of faculty members are exhaustion and anxiety” (p. 19). If this was the case in 2006, how much more so in 2022.

Guarasci lists 6 lessons for effective change, and they are worth heeding today. Though exhaustion and anxiety may make disconnection feel like the safest option, I think Guarasci is absolutely right to counsel more connection. We need to reconnect with what brings us joy in our work, and we need to reconnect with the passions and talents of our colleagues and leaders. Drawing on the work of William Sullivan, he suggests the ideal of the “civic professional,” the faculty member who sees the wellbeing of the college as uniquely and importantly interconnected with their wellbeing.

Looking at the history of St. Lawrence’s lasting reforms, I hope we can embrace this ideal of the civic professional. In this way, we will create the programs and traditions that colleagues will look back on with appreciation 40 years from now.