This last fall semester, I took a graduate course in project management. I was interested in learning how to manage the work I would be taking on as director of our new general education program. Approved by faculty in spring of 2007, our revised program will start in a couple of years, and meanwhile, we will be piloting courses and establishing new relationships with the offices of student affairs, advising, and the registrar. We will also be creating six faculty teams charged with developing curriculum.
I have been a part-time administrator throughout my career, serving in a number of capacities, including writing program administration at two universities, as well as a stint as the founding director of an interdisciplinary program in Middle Eastern studies. However, this new position requires more of a full-time commitment (I will be teaching only one course per year), and I will be leading efforts to promote a new way of thinking about and providing general education. But I also have help. Fortunately, I have an assistant director and an excellent faculty advisory team -- our General Education Committee (GEC).
My biggest concern going into this project was how to promote the work of the various faculty teams. Because the success of the program depends upon increased faculty participation and responsibility, I wanted to find a way to make sure that colleagues found their service to the new program focused and engaging. I also wanted to assure them that the limited time available to them would not be wasted. I wanted to guard against the all too common despair that many faculty members feel when serving on university committees.
I know this pain myself. I have served on our Faculty Senate and several university-wide committees (writing across the curriculum, teaching and learning excellence, accreditation, and first-year learning), and in some cases, these groups have lost their way, floundered about, or stumbled in the darkness because they have lacked a clear charge or leadership. Admittedly, some have actually made a difference to university life. Still, what I have experienced in most cases is the deep frustration that many professors feel when faced with committee work, especially when service to the institution is not highly regarded or rewarded in our profession.
So, like I said, I registered for a night class in project management offered by our graduate school in business with the hope of enhancing my skills in managing multiple projects, especially the tasks related to focusing and organizing the work of interdisciplinary faculty teams who had demonstrated their desire to make our new program a success.
The long and short of it is that the most valuable thing I learned was the potential for project charters to focus teams on the work before them. In the charter, this focus is clearly documented, section by section, by the eleven ingredients of the project: the participants, background, institutional context, charge, scope statement, assumptions, constraints, deliverables, communication plan, budget, and timeline. This level of specificity contrasts with the vague charges that many faculty committees receive. In those cases, members typically waste precious time conducting background research into the contexts and history of the project. In other cases, they head off in the wrong direction altogether. With a detailed charter, the project team has all of the vital information up front and can move forward more quickly.
Let me flesh this out. One of our faculty teams is responsible for courses in the first-year (or Level I) of our curriculum. Their charter begins with each participant’s position, name, department affiliation, email address, and term of service. The position designates the area each faculty member represents. For example, our first-year seminar position is filled by a professor of art and design who will be piloting a section of our first-year seminar this spring semester.
The background section briefly describes how the project was created -- in this case, it follows from the creation of the new general education program. The institutional context establishes an important connection to the university’s strategic plan and academic affairs initiatives. The charge is a concise statement of the team’s objective. Our Level I team is charged with proposing guidelines, an approval process, and an assessment plan to the General Education Committee.
The scope statement describes what work is “in scope” and “out of scope.” The Level I charter stipulates that the faculty team will only develop guidelines for Level I courses (such as, the first-year seminar, English, mathematics, communication). Out of scope would be guidelines for other levels and for transfer students. This section also provides a process for revising the scope of the project. Any revision to the scope or overall charter would require approval from the GEC.
The assumptions section describes other conditions and requirements. For instance, it is assumed that the Level I team will meet twice a month, elect its own chair, and communicate its progress to the GEC. It is also assumed that the project will contribute to the overall success of the new program. Constraints include factors that might restrict the project, such as the various teaching schedules of the faculty members, the original program proposal approved by faculty, and the timeline for completing the project.
The deliverables section outlines in detail what the team is expected to provide the GEC for approval. In this project, the team will submit Level I curriculum guidelines that apply to all Level I courses, several Level I courses, and each Level I course. A course approval process and an assessment plan will also be submitted.
The communication plan explains that the team will communicate with a liaison member of the GEC, and that it will host one open meeting per semester with the general faculty. The budget details how the work of the team will be supported, and the timeline sets forth the schedule of project milestones.
As the work of the new program moved forward, we developed two more charters -- one for our Level II team and one for the writing-across-the-curriculum team. Soon we will be establishing charters for three additional teams: community-based learning, diversity and global studies, and Level III.
In each case, one of the real values of the project charter is how it encourages our program leadership to think about the various conditions that will influence the completion of these projects, especially the resources available to us. Using these conditions as topics or issues serves as a kind of heuristic or line of inquiry. The system prompts us to more fully map the dimensions of our projects and to plan carefully and respectfully the work of our faculty colleagues who have offered their limited and precious time to serve in pioneering our new program.
There may be other conditions, issues, questions, or ways to design project charters that would better fulfill aims at other institutions or other types of projects, but so far, these have worked for us. We have even extended this charter formula to outline the work of our General Education Fellows, a team of nine faculty members who are currently designing first-year seminar courses to be piloted next year.
In the end, successful project management is dependent upon effectively authorizing, focusing, and supporting the work of diversely-populated teams. In academic affairs, project management and its accompanying discourse may seem a foreign invasion or an imposition of corporate-cultural norms, but project charters can contribute mightily to valuing and empowering faculty as they serve to improve the conditions of teaching and learning inside higher ed.
Laurence Musgrove is an associate professor of English at Saint Xavier University, in Chicago.
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