WCC Interim VP of instruction Dr. Bill Abernethy, center, on patrol in Vietnam. (Courtesy Photo Bill Abernethy)
Interim VP of Instruction proceeds cautiously
Dr. Bill Abernethy, five months into his tenure as interim vice president for Instruction following many years as dean of Humanities, Social and Behavioral Sciences, talks about the job, its myriad challenges and how his service as a Marine corporal in Vietnam helped to prepare him for it in an interview with Voice Editor Maria Rigou.
Washtenaw Voice: In our first issue of the newspaper this fall, we praised the trustees and the administration for all this college has done on behalf of veterans returning to the classroom. And we challenged veterans to be more involved as a group. Why is it, in your opinion, they seem so reluctant to be more active and visible? Was it that way for veterans of your generation returning from Vietnam?
Bill Abernethy: I think that people have sort of a misunderstanding of veterans if they think of them as a homogeneous group. I mean, veterans are just people, they get out of their service and they go about their lives and many of them are not particularly interested in identifying themselves. They don’t think of themselves primarily as veterans, they think of themselves as students or whatever they’ve become, so I don’t think there is anything usual about this.
Now, when I was a veteran (student), I think it was kind of the same way. The situation was very different; Vietnam had been an unpopular war. The wars nowadays are not so unpopular, the Middle Eastern wars. But I still think that really the underlying reason is that most veterans just want to get on with their lives, they’ve done their service and now it’s on to the next chapter. Certainly that’s how I felt. I mean, I was out of the military and in college and doing fine.
Most veterans, in my opinion, don’t need any particular special assistance. They just are students like everyone else, but with this rather unusual experience in their background. I don’t know if that makes sense.
WV: How did your experience as a Marine prepare you for your job as an educator?
BA: I think I learned the value of self-discipline, and I think, too, a little bit about leadership. I was put in charge of a small unit in the field and… I learned that I had to have sort of the buy-in, the cooperation of the people I was leading. I couldn’t simply tell them what to do. They had to have faith in my judgment. I had to develop a trusting (relationship); they had to have trust in me.
I had to develop that kind of relationship. I couldn’t just order people around because… it was a small unit, and my rank was only slightly higher than anyone else’s. So, they sort of looked at me… they saw me almost as a peer. And so if they didn’t think that I was doing the right thing, they had no problem telling me about it.
So I think I learned that you have to have the backing, you have to have the support of the people that you lead, and in order to develop that support, your people have to trust you. And it takes time. It takes time for that to happen. It doesn’t happen overnight. They have to see you in action a little bit.
WV: What does the VP of Instruction do?
BA: Whoa, what does a VP of Instruction do? Well, many things. The VPI is in charge of most issues that ouch upon the credit faculty, and that would include developing and evaluating curriculum; it involves keeping faculty aware of issues that are coming up for the college. It includes maintaining a relationship with the faculty union, meeting with the faculty union, listening to the faculty union’s concerns.
That’s probably the gist of it… What is different from being a dean is that there is more thinking about where the college, the instructional part of the college as a whole has to go to continue to be healthy and to thrive… And I’ve been in academia most of my adult life, it’s a long time, and I think things are fundamentally changing. One of the things that the VPI has to do is be aware of these changes and try to figure out how to make these changes work for and not against us.
It encompasses a lot of things. The VPI ultimately is responsible of the budget and the finances of the instructional parts of the college. And hiring. The VPI has the ultimate decisions about what kind of faculty, what areas we need to hire in, what kind of people we should hire.
WV: What would you say are the main characteristics a candidate has to have to be able to fill the position as a VP of Instruction?
BA: I think you have to be a good listener. You can’t be… you can’t move forward without listening to other people, to get buy-in. I think it goes back to what I said about being a leader in a small unit in Vietnam. You have to get buy-in, yet at the same time you can’t be paralyzed.
You have to keep moving forward. But you can’t move forward recklessly or without support. You have to build support for the things you want to do, or they are not going to get done.
WV: What is the biggest challenge in terms of education (for the students) that you have been facing since you accepted the position of Interim VP of Instruction?
BA: They are a lot of challenges. I think right now the biggest challenge (and) I think everyone would agree with this, it’s pretty easy: Enrollments are declining, and actually we’ve held the line pretty well this semester. We are doing pretty well compared to other colleges. But the fact of the matter is that there are fewer students all the time, and there are many institutions competing for those students.
So we have to make ourselves the place people want to go. We have to be attractive to students. And that means we have to have programs that students see value in. And so the challenge is kind of identifying those programs and supporting them so that we can continue to attract students.
WV: What have you learned in the past five months? What do you think you still need to learn?
BA: I need to learn a lot. My background is more in the liberal arts, and in this position I have to know about many areas that I have little or no background in. I have to learn a lot about some of the more technical and occupational programs. That is a very high priority with me.
I’ve kind of started it, but I have a long way to go yet. I’ve learned many things. I’ve learned that this is a very difficult and complicated job. I’ve learned that there are a lot of people doing things I never thought were happening here, very good things that I never was aware of. I’ve learned a little bit about the technical areas. I don’t know where to start really…
WV: How would you describe your relationship with the faculty, considering you were one of them in the past? What would be a healthy balance in terms of relationships with both the administration and the faculty – and how do you achieve it?
BA: I think my relationship with the faculty is good. I was faculty, I understand faculty concerns. I think I understand the faculty mindset because I’ve been in academia forever… I’ve been a teacher; I value teachers and teachers’ opinions about things.
As far as a balance between the administration and the faculty is concerned, I think that the faculty really is the heart of the college, and they do the primary mission here. And so there must be a good and collaborative relationship with the faculty or nothing gets done.
On the other hand, I do think that there comes a point when the administration must move ahead with things. I mean, I think we have to take into account faculty opinion, faculty concerns, but at some point decisions have to be made and sometimes they are hard decisions.
I would hope that as an administrator, and I’ve been an administrator for some time, too, I would hope that I would never make decisions that were damaging to the relationship between the administration and the faculty. It is very counter-productive.
You sort of have to walk a delicate balance in this job, in any academic administrator job. You want to listen to the faculty, and you do listen to the faculty, but at some point you have to make decisions about things.
WV: Former VPIs Roger Palay and Stuart Blacklaw had very contrasting styles – and both are not here anymore. How does your style and vision differ in ways you hope to be more successful in this position?
BA: I’ve learned a lot from both of them. I’ve been a dean under four different vice presidents. I’ve learned something from all of them. I was dean for the longest period under Roger and Stu, and watching them I’ve learned things from both of them.
WV: Are you interested in becoming a candidate for the VPI position?
BA: I just don’t know yet. I have to see if I like the job and if the job likes me.
WV: From your position as a former instructor, a dean and how as interim VPI, what do you think is the most important thing students need today? Is it motivation, more guidance…? How has that changed over your career?
BA: I think students need to, in as far as they can, identify occupational goals, vocational goals. When I started college everybody was getting liberal arts degrees and I think that’s fine, I have nothing against liberal arts degrees. Liberal arts degrees are good, but I think for better or for worse in the near future there is going to be more and more emphasis on degrees that lead pretty clearly into some kind of job.
I don’t necessarily mean at the end of a two-year degree or a certificate, but some track where students can see that there is a vocational, occupational… a job at the end of it. What has really changed is that, when I was in college many years ago, the overall economy was in better shape. There was not global competition, and now there is. And our economy has been struggling and will continue to compete, really have to compete.
So I think students are at some level aware of this, and they want to see a clear value for their education, a clear and kind of tangible value for their education. Which isn’t to say I think that we should flush out the liberal arts. I don’t think so. There is a lot of value in the liberal arts, too. But I think students are more practically minded these days. They have to be.
When I was in college, the popular majors were things like anthropology and English and history, and although those things will always be the fundamental parts of education. I do think students are looking for a clear track to a job now. I would say this though: I think it would be unfortunate if education became solely occupational or vocationally directed.
People need to be aware of some of the issues that the liberal arts touch upon. People need to have a sense of their history. Like the global studies things: there is not a lot of obvious practicality to that, you are not going to get a degree in global studies and do something specific with that degree, but it gives you a broad background that expands your mental horizons and that could lead to a lot of other things.
I think general education is something that is always going to be valued and is always important and is always part of our mission, but at the same time I think that students nowadays are more practically minded because they have to be.
WV: In all your years at WCC, what have been some of your proudest moments?
BA: I can think of a couple classes I taught that are very memorable, some of my best moments at WCC. There has been a real satisfaction in seeing some of the faculty I’ve hired, as dean, turn into very productive members of the college.
And I think I also take a lot of satisfaction in having been instrumental in setting up different programs of study here, in the division of Humanities and Social Sciences, when I was dean.
Now, I haven’t been in this job long enough yet to have too many of those, but I hope I will.