Aiming at Excellence as Our Science Evolves Amidst the Bumpiness of Modern Academia
David Jon Furbish, Vanderbilt University
The health and stature of an academic department are strongly influenced by how its vision and mission mesh with those of the college/school and university. Aiming at this alignment is a continuous process, as it typically involves engaging competing interests and disparate world views of all participants, and is punctuated by weighty, albeit academically normal, events with varying recurrence intervals.
These events are sources of both inertia and acceleration, stability and instability; they are triggers of change as well as tools of change. Moreover, geoscience departments in particular are facing the need to reexamine their missions in response to the rapidly evolving scope of our science - within the context of institutional pressures driven by changing student interests, prioritization in allocation of resources, changes in emphasis on educational level, and changing societal expectations of education.
This table shows a number of the items that influence activity in departments as well as the timescales at which they operate.
|Average duration of NSF grant||~3||95%|
|Average chair appointment||~4||95%|
|Mean residence time for academic deans||~4.5||99%|
|Mean residence time for presidents/chancellors||~6.6||99%|
|Average time to tenure||6-7||95%|
|Average time between sabbatical eligibility||~7||95%|
|NRC ranking recurrence interval||~10||50%|
|Average time between college curriculum revisions||~20||80%|
|Average tenure of "career academic"||~35||90%|
|Average time between major geoscience department curriculum revisions||~30-40||80%|
This table describes the number (on average) of common events a faculty member can expect to see in their career. Note that N denotes the faculty size of the department which is assumed to be steady.
|Participation in external grants||11.7||50%|
|Department chair (re)appointments||8.8||95%|
|College/school curriculum revisions||1.8||80%|
|Major department curriculum revision||1||80%|
|Full turnover of department faculty||1||95%|
No Steady States ExistStrength comes in aiming at a vision centered on agreed-upon principles of excellence that possess long time constants, using shorter recurrence-interval events as tools for tuning to this vision. Important examples occur in curriculum development/revision, hiring and mentoring practices, research program development, and balancing research with educational endeavors. Strength also comes with effective (continual) articulation of departmental aims and goals at all university levels.
How a department conducts/reacts to these events reflects its "culture," a derivative feature with its own characteristic timescale and fundamental significance:
- Does this culture nurture excellence, or is it dysfunctional?
- Is it resistant/adaptable to external/internal forcing?
Some Important Cultural Ingredients for a Strong Department
- A culture wherein the faculty has collective ownership of the department's educational objectives for students at all levels
- tuning to culture of college/school and university
- frequent engagement of faculty, and articulation of objectives
- spiraling rather than redundancy
- educating for versatility
- balanced commitment to excellence in all areas of mission
- potential and flare for intellectual engagement across disciplines
- mentoring starts during recruiting
- tuning programs of study to student aspirations
- supporting a full, but judiciously balanced, engagement of early-career faculty in all aspects of academia
- revaluing the sabbatical; supporting intellectual refreshment and change
- engaging all department members in creative exchanges (e.g. colloquia series, and details involved, matter a lot)
- How can we make this happen?
- Can we tune this idea to our vision/mission?
- alignment is a (continual) educational process among participants
- shape your university, as it will certainly shape you
This table demonstrates ways in which common drivers can affect the culture of a department.
|Participation in external grants||Refreshment, opportunity|
|Faculty searches||Tuning vision, goals, culture|
|Tenure review||Mid-course balancing|
|Department chair (re)appointments||Internal forcing - opportunity|
|Academic deans||External forcing - opportunity|
|Sabbatical eligibility||Intellectual refreshment, steering|
|NRC rankings||Insight on quality; target ideas|
|College/school curriculum revision||A source of alignment, tuning|
|Major department curriculum revision||Aiming at the future|
|Full turnover of department faculty|