Grady Price Blount traveled to Western New Mexico University to interview for a position as provost/vice president of the university.
He, as the first member of his family to attend college, took a 10-year pathway from Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas, to a Ph.D. in planetary geology at Arizona State University.
Blount's bio states: "Grady proudly maintains his faculty status codified by a motto of 'If you can’t make a difference, go home.' Professionally he is a builder." His present position is as founding dean of the College of Science, Engineering and Agriculture at Texas A&M University-Commerce, where his bio says he has "built a culture of transparency, faculty engagement, deliberative self-governance and continuous assessment." He also says he and his wife, Kit, whom he calls his professional partner, consider themselves "true people of the desert."
Blount began his talk to a group of about 30 WNMU faculty, students and community members, with an apology: "I'm a person who works with teams, but my team is not being interviewed." He introduced one of his pastimes by showing photos of airplanes he has flown, with the "funnest" being a Piper Cub.
He explained one of his tasks for the interview was to develop his "perceived vision and goals for Western. This was built on 22 hours in Silver City, Internet research and what I am learning a lot about in the culture."
"To get everyone to buy into a mission, it has to be memorable," Blount said. "Everyone has to have a shared vision.
"Education is our freedom and freedom should be everybody's business," he quoted Dr. Hector P. Garcia.
"When I got out of high school, not by graduating, college was not an option," Blount said. "I went the route of a GED, community college and on to a Ph.D. I'm blessed that I know what I want and where I'm going."
He said his mission at Commerce is to create a 21st-Century university based on discovery and innovation. "You have to have a giraffe mentality—stick you neck out."
Blount's vision is the same for WNMU and includes a Day 1 Degree Plan to be handed to a student with the classes, times and places for the next four years. "Then you provide intrusive advising. That way department heads know four years out what classes they need, when, where and taught by whom. It's a more coherent use of resources. Faculty, staff and administration must be on the same page."
"I'm a terminal egalitarian," Blount said. "No one gets special consideration. All are focused on the student's learning and accountability. I'll talk you into considering a faculty excellence center.
"I'm not here to waste time or space," he continued. "I believe in student engagement and retention. I'm talking about making students change their lives and that of their families."
He said the university must step away from the free-agent faculty mentality. "They need to be focused on one person at a time, instead of the publish-or-perish and high-test-scores mentality."
Blount said, instead of departments squabbling over resources, he would get the departments together to squabble about one piece of resource.
"I love working as a team," he said. "We work for our colleagues. I work for my faculty. Teaching does not equal learning. Faculty has to start caring about whether learning is taking place. Most of the children born now will live into the 22nd Century. Most of us are still sitting in the 20th Century. We're supposed to be giving students skills into the 22nd Century.
"Where I want to work is where learning is centered on discovery, integration and application," Blount continued. "The primacy of the academy is faculty driven. The administration and staff must be service-oriented and working for their colleagues. There must be outcomes-based continuous assessment. I don't mind doing assessment. Assessment is our friend. We must be future focused."
He cited challenges as:
• A competency-based future must include mastery of content;
• Next thing I predict is standardized tests for college graduation, but I do think a competency test should be for individuals only;
• We must keep the academy vital to learning. It's the only reason to come to Western. Most first-generation students don't have the discipline for Internet courses. The classes must be face-to-face; and
•There must be responsibility and accountability.
Blount said every individual has a unique talent. "Part of my job is finding, fostering and mentoring those talents to build and maintain an effective academic team."
He described a fourth-grade talent show as a life-changing event. "We decided to do a play based on 'Across the Cumberland Gap.' We all had on cute buckskin outfits. I havd one line: 'Look yonder, Daniel. It's the Cumberland Gap.' The rest of the cast was behind me. I looked around and realized I was the only one who knew the lines. No matter how good you are, you go down in flames, if the team's not ready. My life is my message."
He said he was really excited to see Western's Early Childhood Learning Center.
Blount describes his academic genealogy:
• Make a difference;
• You hear it; you own it;
• People teach as they were taught. Change that;
• Never say, do or think anything you aren't prepared to defend on the front page of the newspaper;
• We are the only people in society with a vested interest in building the future. If we fail, everything fails with us;
• The 100,000-mile tune-up tells us how the mission is working out;
• Audits of curricular approvals must be up-to-date to indicate if the university is teaching a curriculum that students need, and there must be no black holes in policies and procedures;
• Team engagement; and
• Fiscal responsibility.
"If you screw up, it's not just a bad day at the office, because people may drop out of school," Blount said. "I believe in fully open communication, with open meetings, unless there are personnel issues.
"It's not what you know; it's what you understand," he ended his presentation, and opened the floor for questions.
A Silver City resident said Blount is the only one he's seen who has experience outside the ivory tower of academia, which he considered a plus. He noted a high default rate on student loans. "If the message is that a 1.65 grade average is OK, are we setting up ourselves to be a diploma mill? And how about a six-year graduation rate of 16 percent?"
Blount said the graduation rate should be at least 45 percent to 50 percent. "We can't accept failure as an option."
Another audience member asked what Blount's expectations are for coming to a rural area.
"I'm living near the metroplex," Blount said. "It's not sustainable. I live in the country. I'm a desert person. Trees are bothering me in East Texas. You can't see anything. As our 12-year-old said: 'Big cities have fast Internet. That's about it.'"
A question was asked about the Day 1 Degree Plan.
"The first thing you do is get out into the schools," Blount said. "Remove undeclared from the vocabulary. Pre-declared is OK. Give the student something to begin with. The student says: 'I'm working. I need night classes.' Give them night classes for the next four years. It doesn't take much to do it for the students."
A previous questioner noted that about half the students are Hispanics. "When you look at the demographics, Hispanics are at the bottom. They have a lot of problems to overcome."
Blount agreed. "I am Hispanic. We have cultural issues, and we are our own worst enemy. I was going off to college and my uncle said to me: 'Are you trying to be better than me?' When I said I wanted a better job, he challenged me again: 'I haven't provided for my family? I didn't do well enough?' It's a cultural shift we need to fix in our own community. Get out in the schools and talk to parents. Every faculty member should be issued a $1,000 scholarship to Western and to find the not usual student to give it to. Get the kids thinking about it as an option long before they're 18. It can change lives."
A professor emeritus challenged Blount saying he was getting perilously close to cultural determinism. "All Chicano parents want their kids to better themselves. We need a course for faculty on cultural competency."
Blount's reply was that a person could not achieve a goal if it has not been articulated.
The professor said he is not unique. "I had Anglo professors who took an interest in me. We can't do it alone. We need your help."
"This is what I'm dedicating my life to," Blount said.
A faculty member from the department of education asked what Blount could offer to the department.
When he asked and found out the department has no Ph.D. program, Blount replied: "Oh, we're going to have a lot of fun. A Ph.D. in education is an easy one to support, unlike a Ph.D. in chemistry, which needs $1 million in lab equipment."
A student cited her concern. "I have had seven professors while I've been working on my master's degree. Four are no longer here. What are your thoughts on retaining faculty?"
"I think a small community is an advantage," Blount said. "If we are losing students and we are; if we are losing faculty and we are, it is a clear indication we need to change something. I have no question that President (Joseph) Shepard is a change agent. He said two things to me this morning that I agree with: make a difference and innovation."