Friday Focus: The means matter

October 30, 2020

Tori Tragis

Chancellor Dan White. UAF photo by JR Ancheta.
Chancellor Dan White. UAF photo by JR Ancheta.

— by Dan White, chancellor

The end justifies the means — or so the saying goes. “Means” may be a doubling down to study for an exam. Skipping movie night may be the means that are justified to get a good grade (the end).

One thing I learned as an engineering faculty is that for every course, every student has a different end they want and a different means they are willing to employ to get it. Every student has different means they can justify for the value they’ve assigned to the end.

As a new faculty in 1995, however, I assumed that the end everyone sought was an A. And so I set out to provide the means to that end. My assumed end and the means I assumed would, in people’s minds, be justified by an A. Things like extra study sessions, or additional homework, practice exams, or opportunities to repeat labs all seemed like reasonable means to an A. But as I learned, everyone did not want an A, and the means I laid out merely added work that did not contribute to the end they sought, which for many was simply the knowledge they wanted or needed to make progress towards a degree or no degree at all. My failure was projecting an end and ultimately a value to that end and by providing the means that in my mind could be easily justified. I learned this lesson fairly early in my career and shifted my focus on what the students wanted to achieve.

“The end justifies the means” is quite a different expression when it applies to what we do that affects others to achieve our end or our interpretation of what end others want. “Tough love” is a classic. Tough love is a means to an end. “This is a good lesson for you to learn.” But what does tough love mean and does it really justify the end? That probably depends on who you ask, those providing the tough love or those receiving it. 

As a university, we have metrics that we set for ourselves and ones that are set for us. If our metric is a specific number of graduates, for example, what are the means that we justify to that end? And are the ends and means in sync with the ends students seek or the means they can justify? Just like all students don’t want an A, as I thought, not all students want a Ph.D., an M.S., an A.A. or a degree at all. Some want simply to gain knowledge or to acquire a skill or learn a language. 

I want to thank all of our faculty and staff who meet students where they are, because what is a valuable end to the student is what is important in helping them meet their educational goals. The end I am held to (number of graduates) is less important than the end the student seeks. And that is different for every student.

The means are also different for every student. Every single student comes from a different set of life experiences, different cultures, different values. Even when two students desire precisely the same end, the means to the end will have a different path each time. I thank all our faculty and staff who recognize that the ends are owned by the student, as are the means. And the means matter. UAF has outstanding faculty and staff who help students along their journey, excellent advisors who have listened to the students and understand the ends they seek and the path that will get them there.

On the subject of ends and means, Indigenous Peoples Day was just a couple weeks ago already. I congratulate them on the theme for this year’s event, “resilience through hope and love.” The end, resilience, through hope and love. Wow. That’s awesome. 

The history of civilization is littered with societies delivering harsh measures on others, justifying the measures as a necessary means to an end. This was especially true in the last thousand years and it is true today, in little ways and big ways. However, it is hard to imagine hope and love used as means to any outcome but good. So with history as judge, hope and love are means that matter. I am grateful to UAF’s Indigenous Peoples Day organizers for being bold, and choosing means that matter.  

Indigenous Peoples Day is celebrated by everyone, Indigenous or not, just like everyone recognizes and thanks our veterans on Veterans Day. It will soon be everyone’s opportunity to recognize veterans. So it was with Indigenous Peoples Day. 

As we think about UAF, our future and our mission, recognize that the important ends are those things that the students seek, each as individuals, not so much what we seek for them. And the means need to be the means that are unique to the individual student. The means matter. Resiliency through hope and love is a great path to follow. 

Thanks for choosing means that matter, and thanks for choosing UAF.

Friday Focus is a column written by a different member of UAF’s leadership team every week. On occasion, a guest writer is asked to contribute a column.