Self-Reflections upon being back in Alaska and at APU: Counting our blessings this holiday season

Winter 2010 graduation ceremony

It’s been nine months on the job now. Joan and I returned to Alaska with the same feeling that I remember having every time I left Alaska on an airplane trip- “I can’t wait to get back home.”

My reflections begin with my winter graduation ceremony remarks:

I began with a story…
Picture an East Indian and an Englishman in conversation. The Englishman, who having been told that the world rested upon a platform which
Rested on the back of an elephant which
Rested in turn on the back of a turtle…. ASKS…
What did the turtle rest on?
Answer: Another turtle.
Q: And that turtle?
Ah, Sahib, after that, it is turtles all the way down…

What I love about that story is that it captures for me the importance of getting to the bottom of things, below the surface in order to describe what is going on; what is being said

Every day we are bombarded with thousands of commercial messages-shrill, angry, invectives via multi media

Susan Jacoby in The Age of Unreason describes the result:
“Unconscious people, indoctrinated people, a people fed only partisan information and opinions that confirm their own biases… a people made morbidly obese in mind and spirit by the junk food of propaganda are less inclined to put up a fight or to ask questions and be skeptical.”

Such obesity of mind and spirit undermines the essence of a democratic society, as Robert Reich reminds us-turns citizens into consumers who devolve into-to use Murray Bootchkin’s phrase-insensate receptacles of consumption

Contrast that image-obesity of mind and spirit-with the essential outcomes of a liberal arts education- thoughtful, engaged citizens of a democratic community.

Liberales: To free the mind from ignorance; far too much ignorance in the world today

Liberal Arts education moves you from:

  • Black and white partisan ideology -> Cognitive complexity: cultivating multiple perspectives and worldviews, ability to deconstruct messages and get to the bottom of things; growing neurons and creating new neural pathways.
  • Blind acceptance of those shrill partisan messages -> Capacity for self reflection: What I learned. What do I think about what I learned? What does it mean? 
  • Racist, sexist, homophobic invectives to Critical empathy: acknowledge and respect difference: stand in another’s shoes.
  • That concluded my preamble; we then awarded the degrees wherein each student-upon receiving their diploma-was invited to the podium to share their remarks.

And share they did. APU’s graduates reminded us of the importance of our work as educators and the joy that accompanies this work i.e., sharing their lives as they grow, learn and leave for the next stage of their life’s journey. It was the students that drew Joan and I to APU and they have continued to impress us with their spirit, inquisitiveness, and passions. What a joy to be able to participate in their intellectual and spiritual journey.

As I stood on the graduation stage and listened to each students give thanks, cry, share a few words of wisdom, I counted my blessings for being in this special university. I noted the members of APU’s Board of Trustees in attendance- to me they are a “Dream Team” representing the very best of Anchorage civic and business leaders deeply committed to APU and providing strong support-personal, relational, networking, financial, and consultative. And the faculty-dressed in cap and gowns-top notch, student centered and first-rate but even more- compassionate, committed teachers and I reflected upon getting to know them, sitting with them in their departmental meetings, faculty assemblies, and retreats as we plan the future of the university. I felt honored to be associated with them. APU’s staff were there orchestrating the event, attending to all of the details with professional competence. In a small university, each of them wears multiple hats and, above all, they are focused on student success.

As the ceremony ended and the recessional began, I realized there is no greater satisfaction than being in a small university where a president can personally know students, family, faculty, and trustees as individual human beings.

Some of the values I hope that I have modeled during my nine month tenure at APU, in addition to that which I expect from our students (Cognitive complexity, Capacity for self reflection, Critical empathy): Transparency, collaboration, commitment to deep learning, active learning within small communities, sustainability, diversity, and service to Alaskans and Alaska Native peoples.

I am acutely aware of the fact that small private liberal arts colleges in the U.S. have been declared an endangered species with so many of them closing their doors- it was very sad to see Sheldon Jackson College suffer this fate. During my recent visit to Sitka, I experienced first-hand the pain that many community members felt over this loss.

The key to endangered species preservation is habitat protection. APU as a species will thrive because we have a strong plan habitat protection plan i.e., a business plan centered on modest enrollment growth, endowed property development, and fund-raising. Most importantly, our students and alums tell us that APU continues to provide an excellent product i.e., a distinctive, quality, hands-on-experiential educational experience within active learning communities focused on student engagement. I look forward to working with the entire APU community in the year ahead to strengthen APU’s role as Alaska’s private liberal arts university.