The Importance of Faculty as Active Leaders and Participants in Change

The Importance of Faculty as Active Leaders and Participants in Change


August 1, 2014

The U.S. system of higher education faces many challenges to continuing its important role in the nation’s future. In two previous blog entries, I have commented on the value that research institutions like the University of Arizona help create for our society, and I have suggested that international collaboration is one of the best ways to pursue this goal.

There is a third element of a successful and impactful research university that I have not yet addressed however: its faculty. Without creative, dedicated world experts leading a university’s research and teaching missions, the potential that I have described does not materialize. This is because, while all the components for a world-class institution may exist alongside each other at many universities, they do not always work together effectively. This is why faculty leadership is so vital. It binds an institution of higher education together, making it into a community of learning where teaching, research, and community engagement work together and respond to the challenges of our world in creating  the social, economic, scientific, artistic, and other benefits that we all expect from our nation’s great universities.

This need for faculty leadership is why, in my UA inauguration address in November 2012, I urged the UA’s faculty to challenge conventional definitions of our roles within the university community and to imagine a new, flexible institution that could rapidly adapt to new challenges and opportunities. Rather than a fixed structure with entrenched relationships, I invited the university community to think of the collaboration between faculty, staff, students, and administration as similar to a jazz ensemble, or a fluid rather than fixed organization.

As any fan knows, jazz is not random even though it does not follow a set score. It has a structure, but one that is flexible as musicians respond to each other while guided by the shared groundwork of a song’s chord progression. A university can be similar to this fluid, adaptive structure of jazz if we use the institution’s mission as a guiding background for each community member’s improvisations – or innovations – that help create a harmonious – or synergistic – whole. This model for responsive collaboration will allow us to break molds, evolve our roles, invite in new partners, and create communities of learning that turn the challenges of the recent fiscal crisis into opportunities for transformative change.

Faculty, appointed and classified staff, administrators, and university leadership—as well as our students—each have their part to play in the flexible, improvisational composition of this community, but the key to this model is that faculty must be active leaders and participants in change. The individual achievements of faculty members are paramount to a university’s success, but the work that they do as members of institutional communities is equally vital in creating the benefits that higher education brings to our society as communities of learning. We already accept this basic principle of collaboration in the ways that researchers work as members of national and international scholarly communities: UA chemists, philosophers, musicians and their peers from all disciplines work with their counterparts around the world, and, as I described in my previous blog entry, the benefits are enormous.

This same kind of collaborative work can and should take place locally – within and on behalf of each institution. Indeed, many of our greatest successes are when such collaboration drives the mission the university. As Robert Zemsky reminded us in the Chronicle of Higher Education a year ago, faculty leadership means more than shared governance and university leadership means more than administrative work. So how do we encourage faculty leadership further?

Campus Research Centers, Collaboration and Community Partnership

One of the main ways that faculty are driving the mission of the University of Arizona is through our rich culture of interdisciplinary research and teaching. Our Confluencecenter for Creative Inquiry supports interdisciplinary projects for faculty teams from colleges across campus who work together in ways that redefine how we organize human knowledge. A focus on interdisciplinarity and campus research centers are both relatively common at major research universities, but this kind of collaborative work is less common in the humanities, arts and social sciences than in some other fields. For this reason, the Confluencecenter’s grant programs are structured to encourage interdisciplinary and collaborative projects.

For instance, the new Innovation Farm program provides seed money and staff support to encourage pilot programs that can lead to long term funding through philanthropic partnerships or federal and other external grant support.

One of the earliest grants supported Ellen McMahon at the UA School of Art, who collaborated with Ander Monson from the English Department’s Creative Writing program and Beth Weinstein from the College of Architecture to create the book Ground|Water: The Art, Design and Science of a Dry River.This engaging collection of photographs, graphic design, architectural drawings, essays, and poems by University of Arizona faculty and students is an ode to the dry rivers of Tucson, Arizona. It gives an overview of the region's climate, hydrology, and water policy; a comparison between the theory and practice of interdisciplinary research; and a trail of the overlapping roles of science and art in the construction of contemporary concepts of nature from the Romantic period to the present. The combination of perspectives and methods of analysis helps to create a fuller understanding of water use, policy, and the cultural and social issues surrounding water in the Sonoran Desert and other arid regions. The impact of Groundwater is ongoing: in 2013, it received two design awards from University and College Design Association (UDCA), and a second edition is in production.

Another example of the impact generated by Faculty Collaboration Grants is the “The Documented Border: An Open Access Digital Archive.” Last year Celeste González de Bustamante and Jeannine Relly from the UA School of Journalism, Lawrence Gipe from the School of Art, and Verónica Reyes, the borderlands curator at UA Library Special Collections, began work on this innovative project. They joined forces to collect oral histories, court images, and media testimonies about the U.S./Mexico border in order to advance understanding of border conflicts and their effect on individuals and communities. Their collaboration resulted in a publically available digital archive, a website, and plans for a book called “Documenting the Border” which will be published next year. Renowned border author Luis A. Urrea will be the featured speaker during the campus launch of the archive on October 8. The set of resources produced from this collaboration applies the expertise of faculty members from several different backgrounds and draws on the UA’s historic roots here in the U.S. southwest to forge creative new ways to understand the complex set of conflicts that have gained much attention in recent years.

Encouraging this kind of work and amplifying its impact is one way that our nation’s great research universities can respond effectively to the needs of the contemporary world, and by promoting faculty collaboration this grant program draws out and supports the inherent interdisciplinarity of the work being done by our faculty in the Colleges of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Humanities, and Fine Arts.

The projects supported by the Confluencecenter are wonderful examples of partnership that extend the learning community of the university beyond the institution itself. The faculty, as the heart of any educational institution, must be the driving force behind these collaborations. For faculty members to create meaningful partnerships, the university has to support and encourage their efforts. Because faculty members are evaluated for promotion and tenure partly on the basis of their research productivity, there can appear to be tension between individual research successes and collaborative or translational work that engages community members. However, these two goals do not have to be at odds; to encourage harmony between basic research and translational work or community partnership, the UA faculty senate has revised promotion and tenure guidelines so that community-based research and knowledge application can contribute to a tenure or promotion portfolio. This adaptation creates a reward structure that values translational work, which better supports faculty members for whom partnering with colleagues and community members from many different fields is an integral part of their work.

Faculty Engagement in Teaching

The value of a collaborative faculty leadership also extends to the learning experiences of students, and, as with translational work and research collaboration, these efforts work best through interdisciplinary interactions such as team-teaching, curriculum design, and the innovative use of active learning pedagogies.   

There are points of success that we can build upon.One key example is the redesigned foundational chemistry course for majors at the UA. Working together for three years, most recently with support from the AAU and Leona M. and Harry B. Hemsley Charitable Trust, Drs. John Pollard and Vicente Talanquer developed a new course called “Chemical Thinking” that encourages students to apply the lessons of chemistry as a field to everyday problems, from biodiesel to sports supplements. As its title suggests, the point of the course’s design is to expose students to ways to think about chemical interactions so that the course becomes less about memorization and more about the practical application of knowledge. With the success in student learning outcomes from this pilot course redesign, the faculty in the department of chemistry and biochemistry voted to have all sections of general chemistry taught using the chemical thinking curriculum.

Building on this success, an interdisciplinary team of astronomy and physics faculty members are now working on a course redesign of the introductory physics with calculus course.  As with the “Chemical Thinking” curriculum, the pilot course this spring demonstrated that student learning outcomes are increased significantly through the use of active teaching pedagogies. 

Faculty from these two courses and others on the UA AAU Undergraduate STEM Education Project are helping STEM faculty across campus to add active learning pedagogies to their classes. Hundreds of research studies have shown that active learning increases student learning outcomes in STEM courses (Freeman, et al. “Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics.”, April 15, 2014.). Given this evidence, the project facultyare meeting in three faculty learning communities to discuss, design, assess, and modify new course modules that require more active participation by students in their learning.

The teamwork we see in chemistry and in physics can be a model for faculty interactions in departments throughout the UA and other universities, not just in collaborative teaching efforts, but in a broader collaborative approach to each department’s mission as part of the larger academic institution. We want tenure track faculty to be effective researchers, excellent teachers, and engaged community members because it is the interaction between these activities that makes research universities such important institutions; however, we also have to recognize that the way this work blends together may vary from department to department, from one faculty member to the next, or even from one moment to the next in a given individual’s career. With this in mind, it is time that major research universities (which have some of the most creative and incisive thinkers in the world) explore options for departmental organization, as well as tenure and promotion criteria like the UA’s new guidelines, to better support team-based approaches to individual and institutional success.

If we can change institutional culture to value and encourage the three traditional activities of university faculty equally, it will promote three important outcomes. First, we will open ways to place a higher value on the tremendous dedication and expertise of non-tenure track faculty who are a major part of any college or university’s teaching mission. Second, we will allow greater flexibility so that departments can nurture individual’s strengths and effectiveness as they change across the full arc of a career. Finally, we would encourage departments and schools to work as teams with different faculty members filling different roles at different points in their career. To a certain extent, these differences in focus for individual faculty already exist; the institutional change would be in supporting excellence in all areas with realistic career goals and objectives.

Conclusion: Encouraging New Leaders

Even with the success that we have had at the UA, much more remains to be done. The underlying reality of our world is change, and universities must be able to adapt and lead that change. If faculty members are going to be a driving force behind these changes at the great research universities, they must be empowered as leaders and collaborators.

One way that UA has sought to institutionalize this culture is through its Academic Leadership Institute, which helps to ensure that faculty members have the capacity to be the kind of leaders we need. Formed in 2010, the Institute provides a yearlong professional development experience for 25 campus members – current leaders and those with the potential and desire to assume leadership roles. Four years later, alumni of the program are now among a core group of faculty members and staff who are creating the future of this institution by working together to put their dedication, expertise, and talent to use for the good of the institution, its students, and the communities we serve. Because the Institute empowers leaders from within it ensures that new successes will emerge from the UA’s unique strengths. Other universities and colleges will have different institutional structures and different positive outcomes that emerge from their unique strengths, but the common point for engaged, adaptive, and effective universities of the future will be our ability to enable and follow the leadership of creative thinkers and dedicated teachers.