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In Her Own Words: Erickson Endowed Chair Kristen Renn

kris renn speaking

In Her Own Words: Erickson Endowed Chair Kristen Renn

Dr. Kristen Renn, the Dr. Mildred B. Erickson Distinguished Chair in Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education was bestowed this honor after a more than 20-year career at MSU. In addition to being a professor in the Department of Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education in the MSU College of Education, she also serves as associate dean of undergraduate studies for student success research. Her work is focused on college student learning, development, and success in higher education, with current projects focused on low-income, first-generation students, as well as lesbian, gay, bixexual, and transgender college students.

Dr. Renn spoke on behalf of the 2022 class of investees about the duties they uphold as endowed and honored faculty members—to their fields, to the donors who make their positions possible, to the university, and to themselves. Here are her words:

Good afternoon President Stanley and Provost Woodruff, members of the Board of Trustees, generous benefactors, honored colleagues, and friends and family. It’s good to be able to come together again in person to mark important moments in our community.

Today we recognize faculty for a number of honors, for which we are grateful and humbled. And we recognize the philanthropy and philanthropists who have made them possible. Thank you for your faith in our community of scholars and belief that while Michigan State University is a remarkable institution, we have even more to achieve together.

In reflecting on the meaning of the honors for which we are recognized today I also reflected on the duties that attend them. “Duty” is a sort of old-fashioned idea and might invoke a sense of drudge-like obligation. I think of duty in the sense of a calling and a promise – the promise we make as intellectual leaders in our fields and at Michigan State University.

In my brief comments today I want to name four contexts in which I see the duty that attends the honors for which we are being recognized.

First, we have a duty to our academic fields to continue to lead in our scholarly and creative work. Today’s honorees lead in discovery, creativity, outreach and engagement. Being designated as a distinguished professor or otherwise honored at Michigan State means something to our colleagues outside the university, and we have a duty – we make a promise – to use the platform afforded by these honors to take intellectual risks, advance our fields, and bring this knowledge to bear on addressing the most pressing questions of our time.

Second, we have a duty to those who made these honors possible. For those of us in named chairs or professorships, we have particular people to whom we owe a duty to uphold our own reputations and standards, but also a duty to elevate ourselves and our work in their names. Whether the chair bears the name of the donor or of someone they chose to honor, we have a duty to these people like Dr. Van Haften and Dr. Elizabeth Phillips whose names we now carry with us. We do our work in both their names and our own, with gratitude for their generosity. We have a duty to live up to their trust and faith in the university and in us.

Third, we have a duty to Michigan State University. Some of us were already here and these honors were placed upon us, others are new and came to fulfill the promise of these honors. In either case the honors entail a duty to the university. We may first think of our duty to MSU as scholars, as I’ve already noted. Yes, there is that. But in accepting these honors we also make two additional promises. First, we promise to fulfill a duty as leaders in our home communities at Michigan State University. The increased visibility that comes with these honors entails a duty to be intellectual, moral, and organizational leaders in our departments, colleges, or campus-wide. Just as some of us carry the names of individuals, some carry the honor of MSU Foundation Professor or of University Distinguished Professor. Each of these honors asks us to promise to serve MSU as leaders.

Our second promise to the university is to fulfill our duty as educators. In our teaching, advising, mentoring, and engaged or outreach scholarship we enact a duty that traces back to the founding of the Agricultural College of Michigan in 1855: We have a duty as educators to address real-world problems through our teaching. Being great educators is part of this duty. When we enact this duty we amplify the impact of these named and designated professorships and chairs, and extend that impact to our students, colleagues, and communities.

I wrote these remarks before the Board of Trustee’s recent abrogation of their own Code of Ethics and Conduct, an event of such startling overreach that I must add that honored faculty have a duty to our university to stay alert and act to protect and promote our established system of academic governance.

So the first three duties are to our fields, our benefactors, and our university. The fourth and final duty I want to bring forward is a duty to self. The occasion of publicly acknowledging these honors and the donors who made them possible provides an opportunity to pause and consider what duties these honors entail to ourselves. One idea I want to elevate is the duty to care for ourselves in spirit, mind, and body in ways that enable us to build from the foundation that got us to this point where we fulfill our duties and promises to our fields, our benefactors, and our university. The duty to create and maintain patterns that support our mental, physical, and spiritual health may rarely seem the most pressing item on the agenda, there’s no deadline or external reporting mechanism. But attending thoughtfully to spirit, mind, and body is a worthwhile endeavor and I argue a duty that accompanies the honors we receive today.

Returning to in-person, embodied rituals of the academy – be they convocations, commencements, or investitures like this one – has been one of my greatest joys of the last few months. Celebrating what makes MSU a great university is also a joy. Recognizing the honors celebrated today, and doing so with gratitude and humility, is not a culmination, a looking-back at what’s been accomplished, but a pause as we gather to consider how we can enact our duty to fulfill the promises of these honors with ongoing joy in our scholarship, teaching, leadership, and selves.