Provost Convocation Remarks
If you are new to Sonoma State or even if you’ve been keeping track of the Provost’s convocation remarks over the last two years, you should know that I have engaged in some pretty heavy-duty subject matter, focusing first on the theme of apocalypse in fall 2020, then post-apocalypse in fall 2021. Like many faculty, I tend to view challenges through the lens of my discipline. I am a medievalist by training and the so-called dark ages certainly seemed to be upon us again. Pandemics, according to my fields of literature and history, bring out both our darkest instincts and our most creative impulses. They force us to contemplate life and death as real possibilities and real choices, and they cause us to rethink who we are. So I thought about how to follow up on the apocalypse for this year’s convocation remarks, and I decided to move on to the Renaissance, to William Shakespeare and his oft-quoted soliloquy by Hamlet, which begins as follows:
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?
Clearly, Shakespearian tragedy is not much more optimistic than medieval apocalypticism, but those lines and the existential dilemma posed in them seem especially relevant this year, not least because of their talk of ”outrageous fortune” and “sea of troubles.” This past year was a really hard year–it’s been a tough two and a half years–and it is important, while we are together today, to acknowledge that reality. [PAUSE]
Having said that, I cannot leave our Seawolf community struggling to tread water in that sea of troubles. There is a horizon on which we can fix our gaze, as the president has suggested in his remarks. Unlike indecisive Hamlet, I propose we chart a clear path to what Shakespeare calls in the same speech “enterprises of great pith and moment.” These remarks are really, of course, about the future of Sonoma State, about identity, about integrating new knowledge domains, and, ultimately about the “undiscover’d country” of possibility and what our very own English Professor Stefan Kiesbye in his May Commencement remarks called “defiance, fierceness, and ferocity.” It is not only our graduates of whom much will be asked in the coming years. We as educators–and every one of us in this room is an educator–must be fierce as we take up the hard work of change and growth.
This summer, and indeed over the past two years, I have thought a lot about Sonoma State’s identity and how we can amplify it to enroll more students, to create educational and budget priorities, and to manifest our niche within higher education and the California State University system, and Interim President Lee’s remarks indicate we are all thinking about these issues. Because I have always been a restless and interdisciplinary scholar, never content with just one discipline or field, I am currently integrating the field of organizational identity into my usual frameworks for problem solving. Organizational identity was conceptualized by two University of Illinois business faculty, Stuart Albert and David Whetten, in 1985. Organizational identity seeks to answer the question, “Who are we as an organization?” Part of what intrigues me about this field are the circumstances of its inception. In the mid-1980s, the University of Illinois was going through a period of budget retrenchment that sparked a heated debate about whether the institution could maintain its identity and reputation if cuts affected campus programs. I believe we can use this 40-year-old field to help Sonoma State move forward. Their work presents three factors that can guide us during times of disruption and change:
What is central?
What is enduring?
What is distinguishing or distinctive?
In a follow-up article, Whetten noted that “organizations are known by their deepest commitments,” and that organizational identity is not so helpful in routine decision-making but great for fork-in-the road choices. So as we find ourselves, just like Hamlet, at a fork-in-the road moment and in a period of budget retrenchment like the University of Illinois, we have to recognize our deepest commitments. Our deepest commitment as a campus, according to our Strategic Plan and every campus-level effort of the last few years, is the education and success of our students, whom we have decided should be more first-generation, more BIPOC, and more low income than at any point in the institution’s past. As a campus of the CSU, we have also decided that all our students should graduate on time to meet the workforce demands of the State of California. In those respects, our identity has both changed and stabilized, and if we are to make those central features manifest, then we have to continue creating the conditions under which our current students can thrive. That calls on every academic department to have conversations about how its academic programs and courses are inclusive and help students thrive. They can identify areas of their curriculum with high numbers of low grades and develop a plan to change that. Our enduring identity, what has remained from the past, is based in the public good, in community engagement, in social justice, in making a difference in the world, which means that every student should have a path to engagement–internships, leadership development, job shadowing, service-learning, career preparation, study abroad, field work, practica, and undergraduate research. Every discipline and every unit on campus, across all divisions, should offer rich opportunities for our students to engage.
Our distinguishing feature is our identity as a public liberal arts and sciences institution, as the only California member of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges, as the President has suggested. Like every other COPLAC, we have a mix of traditional arts and sciences majors and professional programs–that mix is no longer an existential dilemma. Like every other COPLAC, we have a commitment to place and physical spaces, like residence halls, our newly remodeled Stevenson classroom and office building (and it is beautiful!), our Student Center, and the Green Music Center, that play central roles in our educational mission and in the learning that happens. Every employee and every student should know more about that distinguishing identity, and every department or unit can play a specific and identifiable role in serving that identity. Our stretch ideas–centers, interdisciplinary efforts, approved and proposed new majors, strategic use of hybrid and online learning, first- and second-year experiences, an inclusive and equitable honors program, one-stop shops that centralize services–all must be in service to that identity. We have a framework for Sonoma State’s identity that we must spend the year exploring, and it seems to me there are two central components–the education and learning that we offer and the actions and engagement that we help our students commit to. That framework helps us think about and talk about our essential identity and helps us build a reputation for excellence that increases enrollment and brings in tuition revenue.
As we work on identity building, each one of us needs to focus on the following tasks:
- Building enrollment. We are still graduating our students at a faster rate than we can bring them in, and because of that we project that total enrollment will continue to decline in the next year or two even as we increase new student enrollment. First-time, first-year student enrollment is up and transfer numbers are solid, but we still have a lot of work to do to increase first-year, graduate, and PBAC numbers. We look forward to developing a new marketing campaign and we will ask you to provide feedback on revisions to our strategic enrollment management plan. If you have not yet had discussions about our identity or about ending impaction or about changing your curriculum to attract new populations of students, now is the time to do so. As faculty or staff, if you are willing to help recruit students, contact Rich Toledo, Director of Student Outreach and Recruitment.
- Retaining students. Did you know that our fall-to-spring and fall-to-fall retention of students actually went up during the pandemic? This past year our fall-to-fall retention rates went up by over 3.5 percentage points, which is an extraordinary accomplishment and speaks to the efforts of our faculty and staff to help students feel a sense of belonging and get the classes and support they need. But we have work to do on retention, particularly for our historically underrepresented students, and we will be asking academic departments and student support units to develop specific strategies to increase retention.
- Increasing yield. The biggest challenge we face in our new student enrollment efforts is yield, which is the percentage of students who enroll after having been admitted. While we are up in yield this fall by about 3 percentage points over the last two years, we have not yet caught up to our pre-pandemic rates. Our goal is to enroll 20% of our applicants, and that will mean concerted efforts for spring and fall 2023, such as new communication plans, making sure the campus looks nice, providing enough seats in classes, and continually improving advising and orientation.
- Creating and implementing an Academic Master Plan. Academic master plans usually deal with programs, faculty, support units, and facilities. A master plan drives creation and helps us grow. It’s about building programs, curricula, and modes of instruction that add enrollment. In this case, a master plan is also about putting our budget in line with our current lower enrollment. We’ll have to make cuts, but we can make them in service to a stronger academic core that develops our campus-wide identity and our collaborations across divisions, units, schools, and departments. Interdisciplinary programs and pedagogy and new majors can both be part of the master plan. But we will also have to cut, consolidate, and reconsider how we do things. Our fork-in-the-road decisions are here, but we can make it through the tough times. We can look to the horizon, make real our identity, and decide to BE, to be a distinctive campus that students select as their first choice. We can be a campus where faculty and staff want to spend their careers, knowing they are supported and fulfilled. You can help by supporting that ideal, by believing in it, and above all, by acting to make it happen.
 William Shakespeare, Hamlet III.1 [To be, or not to be], Poets.org, https://poets.org/poem/hamlet-act-iii-scene-i-be-or-not-be.
 Stuart Albert and David A. Whetten, "Organizational Identity," Research in Organizational Behavior 7 (1985): 263-95.
 Bjørn Stensaker, "Organizational identity as a concept for understanding university dynamics," Higher Education 69 (2015): 103–115. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-014-9763-8.
 Whetten, David A. “Albert and Whetten Revisited: Strengthening the Concept of Organizational Identity.” Journal of Management Inquiry 15, no. 3 (September 2006): 219–34. https://doi.org/10.1177/1056492606291200.