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Personally Speaking/Aristotle, Duquette and Community

As of Aug. 1, 2016, I became a civilian again. I completed my move out of the associate dean’s office in the Hall of Fine Arts and made my way back into Boyle Hall alongside my faculty colleagues. It was a significant transition for me at the culmination of a rather long term of leadership service, and it provides a window of opportunity to reflect on being a faculty citizen at St. Norbert College. As it happens, in my political philosophy courses I address topics such as ruler-ship and governance, citizenship, the nature of political power, and the various forms of political society. In particular, I have tried to convey to students the relevance of the history of political ideas to contemporary political life and that when evaluating and judging political conceptions, and even policy proposals, we have something to learn from the great thinkers in political philosophy.

Of course, it is one thing to theorize and think critically about politics and it is another to be an actual participant; and in the contemporary world – certainly in our own nation – it is difficult to be a participant other than by exercising the right to vote for elected representatives. As I look forward to a sabbatical to get back to research and writing, as well as to rethink and retool my teaching, I’ve had occasion also to look back not only on the last eight years of administrative service (the first seven as associate dean for humanities and fine arts, and the last year as acting associate dean for the newly formed division of visual and performing arts) but also to my career at St. Norbert College overall, and to think about what attracted me to the college and motivated me to become collegially involved with faculty governance and administrative service.

What St. Norbert College offered me from Day One – and what was so attractive in contrast with political life at large – was the opportunity to be a functioning participant in the self-governance of the faculty. Indeed, the faculty constitution, with its empowerment of each and every member through the faculty assembly, along with the ability to serve on governing committees, provides for something much like the ancient Athenian polis where the members stand as equals who participate freely, taking turns in both governing and being governed as the occasions for particular forms of participation arise. Thus, I have found the political life of the faculty most invigorating and a unique way to exercise concrete fellow citizenship.

Then, during my tenure of office as an associate dean, I was very much aware that my role as a faculty administrator was not only in managing division affairs and executing policy with accountability to the dean of the college but also in providing a voice for the faculty regarding its interests, concerns and goals.

Having been drawn from the faculty for this service, and then going back to regular faculty duties, my sensibility is not that of a professional manager or bureaucrat, but of a civil servant in the mode of faculty participant in the life of the college. While the purview of the faculty at the college is academics (and the faculty citizen acts largely within that context), we also have the Norbertine ethos of communio as a guiding aspiration for everyone at the college: All of us are not just employees at the institution but also members of a community that affords everyone opportunities to be active participants – a community where all are deserving of equal concern and respect.

But how do we embody a theory or conception of citizen participation in actual practice? From a philosophical perspective, a realistic view of political concepts is that, while they can provide guidance for constructing an ideal community, they do not guarantee success in practice – and certainly not perfection. Thus, we are always challenged to balance the recognition of our accomplishments with the need for self-criticism: to be careful that, in pursuing an ideal of inclusive participation, we do not become sanguine about where we are; that we can take pride without being prideful (or boastful!); and that we can live up to our ideals while recognizing and admitting imperfection. A point that Aristotle made, and that I was reminded of in view of my recent experience, is that to be an ethical person (and, I would add, an ethical community) we need not only to have a proper understanding of the moral principles that should guide us, but also to develop the right habits of action. Perhaps the greater challenge for us as citizens of this community will always be keeping vigilance 

Nov. 14, 2016