Gratitude for privilege

I have spent my entire career studying and working in academic institutions. The academic life comes with many privileges and a great deal of flexibility. To me, one of the greatest privileges has been the opportunity to pursue my curiosity. In developing a course syllabus, I had complete independence in determining what information was most important to include in a course of study, how best to present it and how to evaluate student abilities to learn and use that information. My research program was free to range as widely as I wanted, provided I was able to convince someone or some agency that it was worth funding that research.

Others look at an academic career and see the tenure system as the ultimate privilege. Created to protect faculty from undue influence on their pursuit of knowledge, tenure is viewed by some as a form of job security that is rare among professions. It is a privilege with few checks, though many of my colleagues actually consider it a call to duty as much as a license for self-direction.

One of the greatest privileges of this academic life is to have tenure at a land-grant university. That unique privilege grants security in the context of a mission of service. We’re free not only to pursue our curiosity where it leads us, but we’re also charged with a mission to apply that curiosity to knowledge that will help to improve people’s lives, strengthen family integrity, build community vitality and enhance economic sustainability. I think of it as privilege with a mission.

I was reminded of that privilege last night as I visited with the chair of the Menominee County Board of Commissioners, Charlie Meintz. Mr. Meintz is a farmer, and after gaveling the board meeting to adjournment at 7 p.m., he was preparing to go back to work on his farm. The year has conspired to grant him one of those many dilemmas farmers face: he grew a bumper crop of forage and grains, only to have weather conditions stymie his ability to get the bounty out of the field and under cover of barn and bin. Unless the snow was flying, he was planning to climb back into his combine to continue the corn harvest. To turn a twist on the famous Robert Frost poem, he had “acres” to go before he slept.

As I hurried through the bitter wind to my car, I first thought of how grateful I was NOT to be climbing back into a combine like Mr. Meintz. Reflecting on his predicament and admiring his resolve, I came to realize that what I like most about the privilege of my job, of my profession, is that I get to work with and for people like Charlie Meintz.

I get to work at Michigan State University, an institution that strives to assist people like Ralph Wilcox, a commercial fisherman from Brimley who shared with me earlier this year his frustrations over the low water levels in Lake Superior and the challenges those have brought to his fishing efforts.

I get to work at an institution that comes up with innovative ways for a mother in Flint to improve her ability to have a healthy diet on very limited financial resources.

I get to work at an institution that is called upon to help people understand and work through complicated changes such as how to navigate a new system for obtaining health insurance or how to hold on to a home after family finances have been decimated by an economic downturn.

I get to work at an institution that takes pride in admitting a high number of students who are the opposite of “legacy” students: those who are the first in their families to pursue a college degree.

I get to work at an institution that chooses as its tag line something as simple as “Spartans will.”


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2 responses to “Gratitude for privilege

  1. Julie Pioch

    Nicely written Tom. Thanks.

  2. Nick Baumgart

    Thanks for sharing this personal insight. I enjoyed reading this and then reflecting on my own privilages and challenges. Many of us are indeed fortunate.