Inaugural Address to Faculty Council, September 2015

I am delighted to be here as your new Dean and have the opportunity to address Council. I want to begin by acknowledging the support I have received from my colleagues during the search process, as a result of which I am here today.

Both liberal arts education and professional education are currently facing a number of challenges. I want to take a few moments to reflect on how a Faculty such as ours is in a unique position to confront those challenges.

I know that we are gripped by a lot of fear, cynicism and despair. We are hesitant to bring forward new proposals. We have little hope any of our ideas can be implemented. As your new Dean, I must emphasize that we need to get past this and try to do so collectively. We cannot give up on possibility, on alternatives, on our big goals:  such as debt-free students, more respect for women, more democratic ownership of assets, greater equality. Collectively, we must ensure that no father ever has to watch his child slip away from his arms into the ocean of death.

Deep cynicism about our own academic work will mean we transmit that cynicism to our students and our younger colleagues. We cannot afford that.

Our mandate

Historically, the mandate of liberal arts education has been threefold:

  • The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake
  • Contribution to citizenship
  • Contribution to professional formation for specific professions such as law, medicine, theology

As we know, this model of the liberal arts is under scrutiny, especially the first two aspects. In a context of rising costs of education, indebtedness, and a shrinking, precarious labour market, the relevance of this mandate is less apparent to students and their parents.

The effect of these trends are deeply corrosive. For one, a huge for-profit vocational training industry has emerged – which promises to deliver jobs but do not. They play cruel games with the aspirations of our youth. For another, many professions are facing very substantial challenges which narrowly conceived vocational training is not able to address. My own field of development is one where the proliferation of ill-trained development professionals has very tangible negative effects on communities in the developing world. Similarly, right after the financial crisis, the conventional MBA was widely scrutinized and critiqued. Every field of practice – from academia to medicine to justice administration - is showing deep cracks in social norms that inform those professions.

Our Faculty has the unique potential to respond to these multiple crises in at least three ways:

  • We can foster, as we already do, the importance of pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Knowledge is power, as has been attested by many marginalized groups through history everywhere in the world. We need to convince our students of this – perhaps more than ever before. But in order to do that we cannot simply ignore their anxieties and realities, and present to them an abstract notion of knowledge that they cannot relate to. Their reality is one marked by an extraordinary contradiction between inequality and aspiration. We must recognize, confront and work with that reality. For knowledge, (especially critical knowledge), can never exist outside of social relations; given our mandate, I would say, it can never exist outside of the quest for justice.
  • We need to emphasize the two-way street between liberal and professional education. As a Faculty, our goal is not only make the liberal arts more ‘professionally oriented,’ but also to see how we can contribute to improve professional education with a grounding in the liberal arts. As I mentioned above, there is now an increasing awareness in some key ‘professions’ about the limitations of the training they provide. For example, at the height of the financial crisis in 2008, the deans of several B-schools were asked to reflect on how the failings of business education may have contributed to the crisis. Looking at recent events such as Ferguson, we see professions/services in justice administration in deep ethical crises.

York has always been distinctive in making liberal arts a critical foundation for learning across the university. Containing top-ranked disciplinary programs, a rarely paralleled array of language programs, and a vast range of interdisciplinary and professional programs, our Faculty is designed to address the challenges faced by the needs of complex social change.

What kind of strategies can we employ to accomplish these goals?

I think a big part of our answer lies in a re-imagined, re-invigorated, inspiring curriculum that consciously defies the conventional boundaries of knowledge.  It is through such a re-imagined curriculum can we achieve a seamless interconnection between liberal and professional education, between scholarship and practice, between active citizenship and critical thought.  Accordingly, our programs should present to the potential student not just a list of courses and requirements. Rather, we need to ignite their imagination - to help them visualize how they will develop into knowledgeable, skilled, empowered and self-aware adults who feel ready for the next phase of life.

We have to achieve this both at the graduate and undergraduate levels.

Of course, critical to any curricular excellence is a renewed faculty complement. This is why my highest priority as Dean would be to seek the renewal of our faculty complement. This is not just an issue of achieving a certain number. We need to ensure the presence of new and diverse voices, cutting-edge, engaged scholarship, professional experience, creativity, a service orientation and teaching excellence as we proceed with this renewal. We need our faculty to be excellent mentors for our graduate students. We need them to be highly visible public intellectuals.

Such a faculty complement, a re-imagined curriculum, and a tradition of research inspired by critical inquiry and transformative agendas are some of things that will set us apart. Yes, we do have a resource challenge. We cannot be naive about that. But we will find a way.

Let me leave you with one thought: as an institution, I believe, our mandate is not only to provide excellent liberal and professional education, but to redefine what such education must entail in these times.

In the coming days, I look forward to working with you to take our Faculty forward.