David K. Scott was Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, 1993-2001.
This is an archive of the Chancellor's Web site during his tenure.
by Vachel W. Miller and David K. Scott
A movement is afoot. It is a movement to reconnect higher education with human wholeness, a movement to return matters of wisdom, care, and spirit to the fore of our educational agenda. This movement took shape some two years ago at a national gathering hosted by the Education as Transformation Project at Wellesley College, and it received a burst of energy recently during the conference called Going Public with Spirituality in Work and Higher Education held at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
The agenda of this movement is no less than the rethinking and reinvigoration of the university toward the development of a more integrative institution. In the western Enlightenment tradition, our epistemological predilections separate subject and object, personal and public, emotion and reason. Such separationswhile powerful in producing certain forms of knowledgehave left many people in the academy with a gnawing feeling of fragmentation and isolation. Ultimately, they have limited our capacity to create more integrative, more fulfilling modes of working and learning together. A transformative agenda is needed to move us beyond the limitations of the past and enable spirituality to become an ally of reason and rationality in the education of wise people and the generation of richer, more integrative knowledge.
This kind of integration does not result from a predetermined faculty development program. Rather, it evolves as department chairs help create new kinds of spaces for faculty and students to explore and inhabit together.
Department chairs have a central role in a transformative agenda for higher education. In their unique position as mediators, mentors, and learning leaders, department chairs have a strong hand in shaping the conversations and community life of a department. Here we reflect on some themes emerging from the conference on spirituality held at UMass Amherst, focusing on the importance of conversations, conflict, celebration, and appreciation in the reintegration of academic life.
Learning from Conversation
Traditionally, we have structured faculty roles around notions of research and teaching which connote a lone expert who imparts or extracts knowledge. Though faculty are well trained in the individual pursuit of knowledge for mutual engagement, our academic culture has not prepared us well for dialogue. An integrative age demands that we move beyond our intellectual isolation and learn how to learn together. An integrative university is a place of rich conversation. Valuing conversation, we can better understand excellence as an emergent property of a community, rather than a property isolated in individuals.
Powerful learning requires ongoing conversationsconversations that extend beyond the walls of the classroom or laboratory. Such conversations foster a collaborative environment for sharing ideas, resources, and deeper questions. When we imagine the kind of learning we ourselves might most want to do, most of us probably imagine a conversation with a mentor or thinker who can inspire and challenge us to move beyond where we now stand. Such challenging, inquiry-rich conversationsnot only within familiar circles, but across the cultural boundaries of many disciplinary groupsare critical to the interweaving of knowledge demanded by the challenges of the present age.
The chair of the department is well positioned to convene the departmental community for conversations that matter. To assess the space for conversation in the department, several questions might be asked: What occasions for dialogue have been built into the life of the department? How do faculty share their intellectual lives with students, and students engage in intellectual companionship with each other? How often do we gather to discuss more than routine business or scholarly pursuits? How well do we honor and nurture friendship? Conversations comprise the soft pulse of a community, a signal of vitality. Attention to this pulse is, at root, attention to the learning capacity of the departmental community.
Conflict is fundamental to our experience, yet we tend not to be well practiced in its constructive use. Our tradition of collegiality often leads us to avoid or deny conflict. When conflict does come out in the open it often takes the form of egocentric jousting that produces a winner and a loser, but no deeper collective understanding.
The ways in which conflict is handled can manifest the spiritual health of a department. Handled constructively, the tensions of differencealong dimensions of identity or ideologycan be a source of energy for change. Such tensions disrupt our habitual patterns of thought and work, inviting us to rethink and reintegrate at a higher level. For us to work with conflict as an ally we need to acknowledge it openly and approach it compassionately.
We can find spiritual resources for handling conflict constructively in the contemplative practices of many world religions. The traditions of meditation, body/mind integration, and prayer found in Eastern and Western spiritual heritages can help train us to resist immediate judgement of others and to understand our own habitual mental processes and emotional experiences more clearly. In this way, contemplative practices can prepare people for more compassionate encounters with otherness.
In his work on community in higher education, Boyer (1989) has outlined several qualities of strong communities. For one, strong communities know how to celebrate together. When we imagine celebration in higher education, our imagination immediately turns to the grand performances, the inaugurations and commencements, which mark the moments of alpha and omega in our institutional lives. We are particularly focused on ceremonies of completion, marking graduations, or years of service anniversaries. But are we taking time to gather for the simple sake of companionship, to share food, poetry, and stories? Are we celebrating the happy accident of working together? Are we commemoratingand creatingrituals that give identity to an academic community? Taking time to celebrate is to open space in which spirit finds expression.
Closely related to celebration is the practice of appreciation. Although we are remunerated for our work by our institutions, we did not come to the academy for great financial gain. We came for deeper reasons. Many of us came to the academy to participate in a community of inquiry, to better know the world, and share our insights with others. We often give of ourselves freely for the sake of our community, yet we may feel that our sacrifices are not being noticed.
Perhaps the most immediate responsibility of the department chair is simply to appreciate. Chairs should always be ready to acknowledge the work which people do, and, at times, even consider offering gestures of appreciation unexpectedly for work not yet finished or an effort that failed to reach its goals. Such gestures reinforce a message of encouragement. Further, appreciation sets a tone of high expectations and high support; it raises the bar of quality while providing emotional assurance that enables greater creativity and risk-taking to occur. Encouragement is especially important for younger faculty members undertaking transdisciplinary work that moves them beyond the comfort of well-trodden theoretical territory. Without an environment that appreciates the difficulty of such work, it is unlikely to flourish.
Discussing powerful moments of meaning in student and faculty learning allows for an appreciation of spirit in our work and gathers momentum for such moments to recur more often. In this way, appreciation is the gravitational force of the future, calling us toward what we might become.
In a recent study of meaning and spirituality in the lives of faculty, Astin and Astin (1999) found that faculty were eager to discuss the issue but found little space for doing so at their universities. When asked what facilitates their spiritual development, faculty members almost never mentioned their home institutions.
In the integrative university, we believe there should be more attention to dialogue about meaning and purpose and well being than is now commonly the case. Concern for spirituality in higher education need not be a matter of shared belief or practice. It is neither a return to the dogmatism of an earlier time or a subtle assault on the wall of separation between church and state. Perhaps we do not even need to use the word spirituality directly in our efforts to revitalize academic life. Rather, concern for spirit can be a matter of sensitivity and sensibility about the shared spaces we inhabit in our lives together. If those spaces are rich with conversation, constructive conflict, celebration, and appreciation, then surely, we are going public with spirituality.
Vachel Miller is Project Assistant, Chancellors Office, and David K. Scott is Chancellor, University of Massachusetts Amherst. Email: email@example.com
Astin, A., & Astin,
H. (1999). Meaning and spirituality in the lives of
Boyer, E. L. (1989). Campus life: In search of community. Princeton, NJ: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.