Initial Publication Date: April 13, 2015

Aiming at Excellence as Our Science Evolves Amidst the Bumpiness of Modern Academia

David Jon Furbish, Vanderbilt University

This page is adapted from a presentation delivered in a session at the 2005 Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, CA. You can also download (Acrobat (PDF) 2.7MB Jan5 06) the original presentation.

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.

Item Years "Confidence"
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.

Item Number "Confidence"
Participation in external grants 11.7 50%
Faculty searches >N-1 95%
Tenure reviews >0.8N 95%
Department chair (re)appointments 8.8 95%
Academic deans 7.8 99%
Presidents/chancellors 5.3 99%
Sabbatical eligibility 5 95%
NRC rankings 3.5 50%
College/school curriculum revisions 1.8 80%
Major department curriculum revision 1 80%
Full turnover of department faculty 1 95%

No Steady States Exist

Strength 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

  1. 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
  2. A culture that is open to frequent reexamination and tuning of the curriculum, and adjusting its implementation at all levels
    • spiraling rather than redundancy
    • educating for versatility
  3. A culture surrounding faculty hiring that is committed to comprehensive and holistic assessments of candidates
    • balanced commitment to excellence in all areas of mission
    • potential and flare for intellectual engagement across disciplines
    • mentoring starts during recruiting
  4. A culture of "intellectual nurturing" adapted to all career levels, students through faculty (assistant through full)
    • 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)
  5. A culture where barriers are perceived as bumps, not walls; and where round and square pegs are equally valued
    • How can we make this happen?
    • Can we tune this idea to our vision/mission?
  6. A culture that places a premium on effective articulation of departmental aims and goals at all university levels
    • alignment is a (continual) educational process among participants
  7. A culture that values effective (continual) involvement of faculty in the affairs of the university at all levels
    • shape your university, as it will certainly shape you

This table demonstrates ways in which common drivers can affect the culture of a department.

Item Significance
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
Presidents/chancellors External forcing
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