Academic Affairs/Provost Office

Communication from the Provost

Rob Sabal, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Remarks to the Full-Time Faculty at the Opening of the 2023-2024 Academic Year

Good afternoon, everyone. It’s the end of a long day, at the end of a long week, at the beginning of a new year. I acknowledge all the hard work that goes into preparing for a new academic year. So, thank you so much for being here today. Thank you for showing up for your students. Thank you for showing up for your each other. And thank you for welcoming me to MICA’s academic community.

I hope our program today has provided some clarity about MICA’s financial situation and our emerging plan for enrollment recovery. I’m sure you have a better sense of the kinds of students who you’ll be meeting in the days ahead, and more clarity about the experience recent students had while they were here. Everything that’s been presented this afternoon helps us understand our current project in academic affairs. Please join me in thanking the staff of the provost’s office Dionna Green, and the staff of the events office, Jon Lipitz and Emily Schultz, who organized today’s convocation. And thank you again to all of our presenters.

In the remaining minutes of our program, I’d like to speak to the moment we’re in as I understand it—there are, of course, many specific matters that are underway and I’m guessing on everyone’s mind. I understand the context of concern in the room. I know we need to continue to discuss these issues broadly in our community, and that many of you have individual concerns as well. Please know that I value the opportunities that I’ve had to hear from you already. And that I look forward to our ongoing dialogue.

But instead of addressing specific issues, I’d invite us to consider a broader frame—that of our aspirations. I’ll start by reminding everyone of MICA’s vision statement—something that drew me to this place. As a community we envision, quote “A just, sustainable, and joyful world activated and enriched by artists, designers, and educators who are valued for their leadership and imagination.”

And that, I’d submit, is the vision of our own community, our own institute, our own college that we need to recommit to and actualize here. That is the field of agreement on which we can begin our work together as partners in the academic enterprise. I came to MICA for the promise of what we can make together. I’m here for this vision—the one that those of you who have preceded me say you endorse. That is my commitment to you, to strive to actualize this vision together. And if this is our vision for the world then we need to live it here. How credible is our claim—the claim we make to students, parents, and members of the community—that artist and designers bring special insight into problem solving, when we cannot solve our own problems and our institution fails?

Everyone here, faculty, staff, and administrators, me, need to take responsibility for where we are now, and each one of us needs to commit to creating, enabling and supporting change. I trust that all of us recognize the urgency of the moment we’re in, and that all of us understand that change is critical for MICA’s future success.

So, what do we need to change and how can we begin together? We can begin by acknowledging MICA’s long history of good faith efforts on all sides to find common ground between the faculty and administration. It hasn’t been easy. And it hasn’t always been successful. And our current financial precarity makes that harder. But good people with positive intentions and genuine care continue to try.

We also can begin by acknowledging our shared values, and by employing them to design processes and structures of collaborative work between the academic administration and the faculty.

We have a new venue for our work together—Three foundational faculty related documents need to take shape this year—a collective bargaining agreement between the SEIU and MICA; a new faculty handbook, and a set of by-laws for a self-governing faculty senate.

The north star for each of these documents must be the “just and sustainable” college that we envision. The agreements we craft will actualize these virtues, inscribing them in our formal relationships going forward. How do we understand justice—what is fair and equitable? How do we ensure that MICA survives and thrives as we create conditions that sustain the faculty and staff who animate the institution?

Now is the time for the faculty—you—our artists, designers, scholars and educators, to lead. Bring your creative brilliance, critical insights, and practical know-how to this work.

In the next few weeks, we’ll form a Faculty Handbook Taskforce. The Taskforce will labor in the year ahead to create the policies and practices that define the reciprocal rights and responsibilities between the college and the faculty. We will argue and debate and persuade each other through dialogue. That is right and good and welcome and my hope is that we can embrace that opportunity together.

But we will also, sometimes, get stuck with opposing positions. And that is the moment when we need to turn to shared values—to test ourselves: can we set aside our positions and find common ground that enhances justice, that supports sustainability, and that advances the “creative, professional, civic, intellectual, and economic achievements of our [students]” the people we are here to teach, to inspire, and to launch into the world.

The faculty can lead this process by recognizing and seizing this opportunity to engage in a collaborative dialogue with the administration. There is no more important project this year than working together on these key governance documents—through this process, we build community and trust. All of our collective aspirations are predicated on our success.

If, instead of amicable, reciprocal, respectful, and dare I say, fun work on these governance documents, we choose to reenact a long power struggle, with either side locked into intractable positions, we will fail. We will fail this moment, we will fail each other, and we will fail this institution of almost 200 years.

This critical governance work runs in parallel with curricular initiatives already in progress and that will resume this year—all of which requires faculty leadership. We’ve made substantial headway in reforms to the First Year Experience, and our recruitment and retention efforts depend on successfully launching this new approach. If you approve, Undergraduates will soon be allowed to add courses that support entrepreneurship, creative enterprise management, professional practices and career preparation into their program of study. And we’ll continue to imagine what a more fluid, multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary undergraduate BFA program might comprise and how it might live harmoniously with the focused major programs. Finally, we’ll seek final approvals to offer the online Bachelor of Design degree, which positions MICA to reach new student populations—an essential direction as we reposition MICA from a traditional residential college to a contemporary learning institution that serves multiple populations.

New academic structures will support the larger transformative work envisioned by MICA’s strategic plan. In an environment of austerity, I have decided to shrink the senior academic administration—replacing three Vice-provosts with two—one for Open Studies and one for Residential Programs. The new Vice-provost for Residential Programs will facilitate greater connection between graduate and undergraduate curricula, facilities, faculty, and staff. A search for the new vice-provost will commence this year.

In addition, we will not seek to fill the position of Associate Vice President of Enrollment Services. Instead, enrollment, registrar and advising duties duplicated on campus, and in Open Studies, will merge, forming one unit that will serve the entire college. Other structural changes will emerge this year as we look for curricular synergies, greater program visibility, and operational efficiencies.

As we look to the future, MICA has a singular opportunity to build on its identity as THE higher education leader of partnered community pedagogy and participatory design for social impact. In this time of institutional transformation, we are uniquely positioned to place civic engagement at the center of the college’s teaching and learning—benefiting undergraduate, graduate, and non-traditional students. Faculty and staff from across the college are piloting new courses and projects that extend MICA’s connection to Baltimore’s communities—advancing social, economic, and environmental justice. Our commitment to Baltimore redounds to our own success, burnishing MICA’s reputation, allowing us to reach new student populations, and increasing external partnership funding. Coordinating and connecting these endeavors into a visible and coherent whole truly allows us to “Thrive with Baltimore.” 

I arrived in Baltimore in July, and set up housekeeping in an apartment in Fell’s Point. I can see the harbor from my window, and I enjoy watching the pleasure boats and commercial ships as they pass my field of view. Each boat, no matter how small, produces a sizable wake that often endures long after I’ve lost sight of the source. I think of my time here in a similar way. MICA has endured for almost 200 years as an institute of art education. Each of us passes through this institution, contributing what we can to its success. We leave in our wake our students, equipped to lead and succeed in the long life that lies ahead. We leave our curricula and programs and the values and worldviews inscribed into our educational models. We leave rituals, codes, symbols and systems that unite us in community. At this moment, in this time, we are the stewards of MICA. We live in the wake of others, and honor those who came before us by creating what comes next.

I look forward to doing that together with you.  Thank you, and welcome to the 2023-2024 academic year.