Navigating the Mammoth University

U. of Minnesota expands its orientation for new faculty members from 2 hours to 3 days, and gets rave reviews.
August 22, 2007

For faculty members starting work at a new institution this fall, the thought of sitting through a multi-day, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. orientation program can be unbearable.

Losing hours that could otherwise be spent setting up their offices, getting to know their departments or moving into a new home can be a tough sacrifice, but it’s a sacrifice that administrators at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities hope their new hires will make.

The university is a mammoth: in all, its three campuses in Minneapolis and St. Paul enrolled more than 50,000 students last fall who were taught by 3,100 faculty members.

Last August, the university expanded its orientation program from two hours to three days to “give new faculty enough information to be able to navigate this really big place,” Arlene Carney, vice provost for faculty and academic affairs, said. “We realized that can’t happen in only two hours.” The two-hour orientation consisted of a smattering of speeches that welcomed new faculty to the university but did nothing in the way of faculty development.

The agenda for this year's session, which began Tuesday, includes a welcome from Robert Bruininks, the university’s president, an introduction to the university’s library system and workshops on teaching and learning. New faculty, Carney said, are encouraged to attend as many parts of the orientation as they can.

Carney invited 135 new faculty to last year’s orientation and 96 attended at least one day of the orientation. On average, 85 people showed up each day. More than 260 faculty were invited to this year’s orientation and Carney anticipates that 75 percent of them will go to at least one day of the program. Participants get a stipend of a few hundred dollars for attending.

Tamara Moore, an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction who arrived at Minnesota after earning her Ph.D. from Purdue University, said the orientation “really is a very valuable experience.” In the span of three days, she said, “I really got to know the university and feel a part of it.”

For faculty deciding whether to attend, “it’s a juggling act,” said Gil Rodman, an associate professor of communication studies, who went to two of the three days of last year’s orientation. “If you just moved [to town] a week before, it can feel like too much to some people -- but I think it’s worth it.”

Another faculty member who went last year, Catherine St. Hill, an assistant professor of veterinary medicine, said that though she was “swamped” with getting settled she thought of the orientation as “basically a long-term investment that would pay off in the long run” despite its short-term inconvenience. “It exposed me to all the available resources at the university in way that would have taken me years.”

Moore went further: “There have been lots of times this year when I’ve known about things at the university that people who’ve been here a long time don’t know about,” she said. Organizers gave faculty a large binder of information about the university and who to contact with specific kinds of questions or concerns.

Faculty members said that the networking opportunities they had during the orientation were important in getting them integrated into the university’s academic and social community, Carney said. “We heard again and again that what the faculty liked most was getting to meet each other, to hear about work that’s happening elsewhere in the university and possibly to collaborate on interdisciplinary research based on who they met at the orientation.”

Rodman said that the orientation “could have used a few more social moments,” noting that the end-of-day receptions were easy to skip. “I’d get a piece of cheese and the person I’d want to talk to would have already gotten his wine and gone home or down the street to the bank or something.” Nonetheless, he said it was “a good way to meet people who you aren’t necessarily going to meet in your usual work.”

St. Hill said the best part of the orientation was “meeting other faculty I’d never have a chance to meet because the university is so big.… We got to compare notes on starting up a new lab, hiring people, trying to get tenure.”

The first day of the orientation focuses on introducing new faculty to the university, giving them a sense of the institution’s structure and functions. Sessions will be led by a collection of vice provosts and vice presidents, giving new faculty a chance to “have faces to place with names,” Moore said.

On the second day, faculty will get their pick of several sessions on teaching and learning, including ones on student diversity, effective lectures and teaching with writing. Others sessions are on university programs like Minnesota’s undergraduate writing initiative and international programs. There are also sessions about ordering textbooks and course packets and on campus technology.

The third day’s agenda focuses on research and scholarship, with a mix of sessions for humanities and sciences faculties on preparing research proposals, getting funding, and working with the institutional review board and animal care and use committee.

Throughout, there is an emphasis on giving faculty a sense of what life will be like at the university.

Henryk Marcinkiewicz, associate vice president for academic affairs at the Pennsylvania College of Technology and author of New Faculty Professional Development, said that faculty development programs have become mainstream in the last 15 years and that “roughshod orientations the day before” are being replaced with longer programs like Minnesota’s, as well as follow-up sessions throughout a new faculty member’s first semester or year at an institution.

“Universities are finally acknowledging that new people coming in need some sort of training, regardless of how far along they are in their careers,” he said.

Many of the sessions at Minnesota’s orientation are discussions with faculty panelists, some longtime university employees and others just a year ahead of the new faculty -- faculty who went to last year’s orientation, which, Marcinkiewicz said, “suggests appropriately that some of the people you can learn the most from are your peers.”


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