President Struppa posing in front of seal
Chapman University Strategic Plan

» Letter From the President

Unlike the previous 5-year strategic plans that Chapman developed, this plan should be viewed as the first in a series of three plans leading to 2037-38 with the ultimate goal of redefining Chapman University as one of the great institutions of the United States. This assertion begs the question of what one means by ‘great institution.’ There are of course the usual metrics (though some of them may not even be available anymore in 2038), such as USN&WR and other rankings regarding admissions, retention and graduation rates, research expenditures, doctoral degrees awarded, and so on.

Before referencing any of these specific metrics, however, there is a far more substantive question as to what it means for an institution to be among the very best. The answer to that question must be predicated on an understanding of the role of universities.

Over the last several years, political and market forces have led to a somewhat reductionist definition of the role of universities as agents for workforce development or as instruments to remedy social inequities. While workforce development and social empowerment are part and parcel of the mission of a 21st century education in an ever-evolving world, neither political nor market forces can evade the fundamental question of what the intellectual contribution of universities to society must be.

This plan, and the more general thrust towards 2037-38, challenges reductionist views of the role of the university by reaffirming that, at its core, the university is first and foremost the intellectual arena where old and new ideas are discussed, compared, developed and applied, without reverential respect for the past or the acritical embrace of the new. In short, a university is the crucible where ideas are forged and their impact nurtured through the inexorable process of debate, in an atmosphere of authentic intellectual freedom.

There is no doubt that the leadership role in this endeavor belongs to faculty. Far from the fashionable role of "guide on the side," faculty are the indisputable thought leaders of the university and must be ready to face the challenges and opportunities that their role requires by proposing new ideas and persuasively argue for them as well as acknowledging their shortcomings when necessary. Never satisfied or complacent, thought leaders are constantly seeking to augment the body of knowledge, advance and disseminate a fuller understanding of truth. This is the reason why thought leaders do not publish what is easy to publish: rather, they push the boundaries of thought in their search for new and controversial ideas. They are committed to leading rather than following.

Far from diminishing the role of students, this vision reinvigorates it. In a vibrant institution, where ideas are discussed and debated, students become co-creators with their professors. Their academic courses equip them with the instruments and models crucial to their own journeys of discovery, enabling them to gain the confidence to challenge existing ideas and develop and propose their own ideas and perspectives. In this vision of the university as the crucible of ideas, collaboration is prized and students and faculty members become sources of inspiration to one another.

Staff members play a crucial role in this vision as well. They embrace the push towards excellence and find ways to increase the quality of the Chapman Experience and the ascent of the university. They are essential members of a team that cross-trains, rethinks and continuously improves processes to reach ever more ambitious goals.

While excellent faculty and staff hires contribute to the university, I do not believe that they are sufficient to achieve the change that will place Chapman among the great American institutions and give it a role in defining greatness. To do so we need to focus on the creation of programs and the hiring of faculty who can advance ideas capable of bridging different realms of knowledge in ways that are not common in the bounded, ossified structures of academic fields and disciplines. A key feature in this pursuit is the concept of germinality, applied to both ideas and their proponents, be they faculty, students, or staff members. Let me explore a little more what I mean by this concept.

I call germinal an idea that contains in its essence the capacity to affect not only the discipline from which it may have arisen, but vast areas of knowledge that may appear disconnected among themselves. It is not immediately obvious how to identify a germinal idea, but it is often through a web of connections and analogies that such ideas become transformational. Its power can be demonstrated by the conjectures (in the sense of the 15th century thinker Nicholas Cusanus) that such ideas generate and that eventually lead to unexpected and testable hypotheses. Germinal ideas, by their own nature, bridge fields and disciplines, but germinality is much more than simple interdisciplinarity; rather, it is an explosion of connections that transcends disciplines.

An immediate example of a germinal idea is the theory of evolution by natural selection. First developed in the nineteenth century by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, it was eminently a theory about living organisms and how they evolved from more primitive forms. But the power of the concept that organisms evolve, and that they do so under what is called evolutionary pressure (i.e., pressure from the environment) lends itself to a much larger spectrum of applications, including economics (evolutionary economics), psychology (evolutionary psychology), sociology (evolutionary sociology), and literature (literary Darwinism). Even more, we now use terms from the theory of evolution to describe the changes in markets, in academia, in almost any field. We use ideas from evolutionary theory to make predictions (conjectures) about the future of higher education, of society, of our world.

Germinal ideas and their proponents (germinal thinkers) are not easy to come by, but a university devoted to intellectual primacy should attempt to identify thinkers with such capacity and entice them to join a like-minded community. This cannot be done by simply posting an advertisement in The Chronicle of Higher Education. It requires cultivating a network of colleagues devoted to the task of creating a singularly powerful intellectual arena on our campus.

It is by focusing on this task that we can imagine building a university that can stand head-to-head with the great institutions of the world. The plan I am presenting here sets up the conditions for Chapman to engage in exactly this process.

With gratitude,

Daniele C. Struppa