The Skill Set We Need

August 1, 2011

Those of us lucky to have jobs have all felt some pain as a result of the economy: whether it’s accepting additional years without a cost of living increase, seeing increased class sizes or cuts in travel funding, or, in the worst case, experiencing furloughs. We've also been unable to add faculty members to strengthen those programs that are most promising. Dreams of fresh reinforcements of newly minted Ph.D.s are not being fulfilled, and the mantra remains: Do your job with the resources that you have.

The economic crisis has also exposed a deeper problem -- namely that faculty often lack the skills that are necessary to help us improve the position of our departments and colleges and lay the groundwork for growth in the years to come. Economists refer to such a situation as a skills gap – the areas of the economy that will experience the most growth in coming years (such as biotechnology) are those that require skill sets that the labor market does not provide in sufficient number. For faculty members today, preparing for the departments and programs of tomorrow requires skills that are not commonly taught in graduate programs and for which administrations don’t provide incentives. Building stronger programs means higher enrollments and more money. How one does this, however, involves mastering skills for which there is little training and no guidance.

One such challenge for faculty members to address is building synergies. The days of universities blindly signing off on faculty lines, even in the case of replacements following retirements, are over. The challenge will be to justify why a line is necessary. With scarce resources and nearly infinite demands, administrators are hard-pressed to justify why some departments should receive additional resources and others should not. A strategy for selling new lines is to use them to create synergies between academic units. Positions involving multiple departments can create faculty that complement each other rather than duplicate each other. Even within programs, faculty will need to justify how an additional line addresses a need in the curriculum. We think about curriculums as integrated wholes: in the coming years we will need to better sell how those proposed hires fosters that integration.

Some examples will make this point clearer. Faculty members should review the university strategic plan for insights on how to better align their departments' needs with those of the university. Across departments, there are commonalities that can be used to position departments for future growth – statistics and research methods, for example, is taught at many universities at the graduate and undergraduate levels in psychology, sociology and political science. At some universities, we would also add public policy and international affairs to this list. While there are important differences in the subject matter, each class uses a statistics text and software. A cluster hire on social science research methods could solve some problems across these units and create additional synergies. Within departments, it is essential to think about the tradeoff between specialists and generalists. While many faculty would like to have another person in their exact same subfield, it might be more suitable for a department to hire a generalist to cover large intro classes if the present faculty members are unwilling to cover them.

There are complex administrative issues to consider with joint hires – how will the search committee be staffed, who will have tenuring responsibility, and how will teaching be allocated between units? However, the larger problem here is an intellectual one. Many of us are not trained to think in an interdisciplinary sense, so building synergies between units is difficult. Even within programs, the same problems can crop up. While departments build curriculums on the idea that they're coherent, it might not be clear how hires can strengthen or augment that coherence. Many of us are used to thinking in the confines of our field (or, more to the point, our subfield). This parochial thinking can prevent the broader strategic focus that will prove essential to build stronger programs in the years to come.

A second challenge is strengthening skill development and mentoring. Greater emphasis on accreditation and assessment means that faculty have to think seriously about what they do inside and outside of the classroom and why. This challenges faculty who have never thought about the\ skills that their courses are intended to strengthen, much less what the learning objectives of the class actually are. Similarly, increasing pressures to make information on student placement transparent will also translate into pressures on faculty to think about how they mentor students, and how it can be done better to ease the transition from college to career.

Both thinking about skill development and student mentoring are areas in which there are few roadmaps and even fewer incentives. Too often, this process is dictated from the top down with a desire to build simple rubrics that make accreditors happy, regardless of their fit with the realities of our programs. Moreover, despite all of the rhetoric about having a "committed faculty," how often does this actually translate into discussions about pedagogy? Pressured with research commitments that are only escalating, the days of faculty members meeting to talk about what we do in the classroom are few and far between. A need for expedience translates into an avoidance of genuine innovation and missed opportunities for growth.

The final barrier for faculty seeking to build stronger programs is transparency and benchmarking. Faced with pressures from state legislators, faculty need to be more open about what they do than ever before. Even those programs that aren’t feeling these direct pressures can market themselves better with greater transparency. The challenge, though, is not merely to be transparent, but also to shape the terms of the debate by devising new metrics of productivity. Faculty workloads are not merely measured in terms of class sizes or articles produced per semester. As a result, we need measures that sync up with the nature of our work. Building better measures of productivity allows departments to better sell themselves within the university as well as to prospective students.

For example, in my international affairs program, a great amount of faculty service is not captured on committee rosters. It takes the form of letters of recommendation for undergraduate and graduate students for scholarships, study abroad applications, internships, and jobs. I’ve written an average of 54 letters per year since joining my university in 2006. This is a number that I reference in my meetings with prospective students and on the first day of my classes since it underscores that I take mentoring seriously. The challenge for departments is to use this data (or even the productivity measures developed in recent months at Texas A&M University) the right way. Presenting departmental averages makes a case for funding the unit as a whole based on its productivity. It also avoids pitting faculty against each other. After all, the adversary is not within the department; it’s outside it.

The solution to the fiscal crisis for departments and colleges is this: stronger programs mean higher enrollments. Higher enrollments mean more money. Getting to that point, however, requires academic units to think strategically – which is something that faculty aren’t trained to do in a collective sense. It is also something that we aren’t individually trained to do in our graduate programs. It is also unrewarded by existing incentive systems on many campuses. For faculty, the race will be won in the coming years by those that work together innovatively. This, in turn, places university administration in a unique role to create an entrepreneurial culture on campus. By disseminating information to allow learning across units and rewarding innovation rather than stifling it, they are positioned to enable faculty to take advantage of the challenge of these difficult times.

Bio

Martin S. Edwards is assistant professor at the John C. Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University.

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