Timothy Kaufman-Osborn

Keynote Speaker: Timothy Kaufman-Osborn, provost and dean of the faculty
June 3, 2011

I was surprised as well as flattered when I was asked to deliver the keynote address for this event. As I wondered why this invitation had been extended, it occurred to me that there are two possible explanations: First, several more capable candidates were asked to offer this address, but declined, in which case I qualify as something akin to the last candidate standing. Or, second, someone may have thought I might actually have something of value to say at this event. Because I am not at all sure I can deliver on that expectation, I’m going to assume that I am indeed the last candidate standing. As such, I will drone on for the requisite 15 minutes, and then take my leave so that we can move on to the more important business of acknowledging those who truly warrant recognition today.

The primary purpose of this event is to recognize the staff of Whitman College; and my aim is to do justice to that purpose. However, as soon as I acknowledge that purpose, I realize that I’ve wandered into a conundrum. For who exactly is and is not a member of the staff of Whitman College? Am I a member of the staff? I most certainly am. How do I know that? Well, I’m at this breakfast, so, therefore, I must be a member of the staff of Whitman College; and it gives me great pride to identify myself as such. But am I also a member of the faculty? Well, I guess so since my name appears in the college catalog under the listing for the Politics Department. But, hold on now, in addition to being a member of the staff as well as the faculty, am I also a member of the “administration” of Whitman College? Well, again, I guess that must be so. How do I know that to be true? Well, a colleague of mine in the Politics Department once told me that she was concerned about a development at Whitman College, a development which she labeled “administrative creep.” At first, I thought she was referring to the tendency of Memorial Hall to become an enormous vampire-like being that sucks all of the life blood out of the College. Only belatedly, did I realize that, when my former colleague used the phrase “administrative creep” she was referring not to Memorial but to me. So, if I’m not merely the chief academic officer of the college, but also its chief administrative creep (unless, of course, you want to reserve that title for my boss), well, then, I guess I must be a member of Whitman’s

administration but also of its faculty and staff.

Goodness gracious, it’s no wonder that I’m confused these days. Why, though, do I bother you with my confusion today? I do so because of a concern about events at Whitman over the course of the past year. On occasion, over the course of this past year, I worried that the community that is Whitman College was fraying a bit around the edges, fraying under the pressure of national and global economic woes, fraying under the pressure of various campus controversies, fraying under the pressures caused by a larger than anticipated student body, and so forth and so on. In addition, over the course of this past year, I sometimes worried that these pressures were being expressed in the language of faculty vs. staff, or faculty vs. administration, or staff vs. administration. I find those labels and this language troubling because I worry that it does not do justice to the way in which we, together, are members of a community, a community that joins us together in the shared purpose of providing to our students the best liberal arts education we can possibly provide.

This is not to deny that there are indeed differences within our community. There are real differences, and some of those differences are in fact significant. E.g., some of us have bigger offices, while others have no offices at all; some of us have the form of job security that comes with tenure, while others do not; some of us have supervisory responsibilities, while others do not. These are differences that do matter, and these are differences that we need to remember and examine as we seek to restore our sense of community after this sometimes difficult year.

But, of course, there other differences, other ways of drawing lines between us, that too often distract us from our common cause. Specifically, I worry that when we categorize members of our community by labeling them members of the staff, the faculty, or the administration, and when we sometimes assume that the interests of these groups are pitted against each other, we sometimes do ourselves a real disservice.

To illustrate what I’m trying to get at by distinguishing between differences that matter and differences that distract us from our common cause, for the next five minutes, I want to draw on the assistance of one of the great sages of the Western philosophical tradition, the inimitable Dr. Seuss. Here goes:

YouTube video

What does Dr Seuss teach us here? I think he teaches us that, in some cases, drawing a distinction between faculty, staff, and administrator does make sense, as it does today in this celebration of the staff of Whitman College. At other times, though, when this distinction encourages us to forget what joins us together, it is no more helpful than the distinction between those who have stars on their bellies and those who do not, or the distinction between those who were assigned the color blue today and those who were assigned the color red.

So, to return to the primary purpose of this event, today, we celebrate the work of the staff of Whitman College; and, on this occasion, and once again, I am proud to be counted as a member of this group. The staff of Whitman College represents the oil that keeps this college running and, to mix my metaphors, the glue that keeps it from breaking apart. And yet, in the last analysis, we are members of a larger community, the community that is Whitman College, a community whose history extends over 130 years, a history that is ultimately all about educating the young women and men who will lead us into an uncertain future. On behalf of the entire college, and in the name of those students, I would like to express my deep appreciation for what each and every one of you does, day in and day out, to ensure that Whitman remains the great liberal arts college that it is. It truly is my privilege to honor you, my colleagues in the community that is Whitman College.