Go for the Bold?


president ben allen has charged the strategic planning committee to 'be bold' in its vision and implemenation of that vision for uni. here are some thoughts that have been going around my mind recently, and especially, since i attended one of the town hall meetings yesterday re: the strategic plan. my examples will specify the psychology dept, because that is what i know, but i believe these ideas are not specific to the psychology department.

the psychology department (and others that have an "intro to x" course in the lac) could have a majors-only intro course of reasonable size (25-35 instead of 200-220). if an incoming freshman knows from the get-go that they want to be a psych major, they apply to the program right away (and those that meet a minimum gpa requirement gain entry). they start right away on our classes, with our majors-only intro course and progress through our courses...except for this small intro class nothing structural really changes. our courses are already tightly organized around prerequisites, and our students who are here for 4 years do this anyway...take a couple psych classes their freshman year and then progress through the rest of the courses. the difference being, they feel a part of the major right away, instead of when they are a sophomore or a junior which is when they currently apply to the major. the current structure actually encourages people to go to hawkeye first. this late-joining to the major has several negative consequences: they don't feel part of our dept until way later which leads to a disconnect while they're here and little or not contact with our alums later; they feel urgency by the time they join the major so they just want to rush on through; and this urgency contributes to their negative impression of the lac which has "wasted" their time their first two years when they could have been working on their major. the fact is, they are working on their major but we don't formally acknowledge them and bring them into the fold until too late.
pros: this creates community between students and their major faculty; this creates value for the 4 year experience--they get the impression that they can start their major right away; this greatly lessens the attractiveness of hawkeye--why go to hawkeye when you can start right away? and many more unintended positive consequences that come out of that greater sense of connection with the dept.

but what about those who don't declare right away? what about intro to psych as part of the lac? what about the lac as a whole? i envision a school of liberal arts and sciences (or some cool name that someone comes up with)..this could be stand alone if possible, or under the new college of arts and sciences (yes, social sci people would be concerned, but place a social science person as director or head or however that works, and poof a lot of that goes away--plus, the structure of this school will alleviate these concerns as you'll see i think). being a school means that it is a unit with its own faculty and curriculum. what is that curriculum? the utterly new, completely revamped "core" of courses that all students take at uni, spread across the 4 years as an integrated liberal arts and sciences experience. everyone upon acceptance at uni, is accepted to this school. upon graduation, everyone ultimately has the equivalent of a double major (liberal arts and sciences and then say, psychology). this curriculum is decided by the university as a whole..now it's not a matter of turf because these classes aren't being taught as a course from a specific department, depts don't feel like they are 'servicing' something, they don't feel like their resources are being sucked up by the lac and under appreciated because people (students and faculty) hate those classes anyway...now they might be concerned that they lose advertising for their major, but too bad--they'll have to be a bit more creative and proactive in attracting students :) and the benefits of majors-only intro to x classes is very appealing to departments, makes those classes fun and important again for them, and they still will be able to attract majors from the liberal arts and sciences curriculum because very likely there are courses and content that relate to their major. so back to the curriculum....through a large carefully chosen committee (akin to the strategic planning committee, but more heavily faculty and of course relying on the efforts and skills of existing people already serving on a variety of lac-related committees), town hall meetings, etc...the university decides "what is it we want students to know" "what are the course skills and outcomes we want them to have?" and we develop courses that do that....we don't beg, borrow and steal them from depts. the school creates the curriculum. now you have a 4 year experience that is thoughtful, mindful, purposeful...it runs like any other unit..there are entry level courses (first year experience could be housed with the school)...freshman first semester likely would be all liberal arts and sciences courses (writing, critical analysis development, democracy project-esque stuff, etc)...then their second semester they could branch out if they were ready (like the student who knows they want to be a psych major they could go and apply to the psych dept and take the majors only intro class spring semester)...their courses in this liberal arts and sciences school would progress like any other dept...they take their entry level classes, and then there are others after that...the students are guided through the program just like they are now in majors--through preqrequisites.  by the time of their 4th year in the school they are taking senior seminars, capstone, portfolio courses, whatever...very cool stuff...their experience with *this* kind of core is purposeful, meaningful, throughout their entire experience. it doesn't feel like an obstacle to majors, it's part of their whole education at uni. (an added benefit is that it completely undercuts community colleges--we create value again for the 4 year university experience and foster cooperative arrangements with community colleges for people transferring into this new system, but we take away the leverage that community colleges rightfully have now: "why go to UNI when you can go to hawkeye and it all works out the same in the end?")

so if these school's courses aren't the existing courses from depts, who the heck is teaching them?!  the school should be populated with faculty by application and invitation, and later, resources permitting, external hires. the school in this way acts as any other unit with their own invested faculty teaching their own courses. who do you extend invitations to? faculty who have won teaching awards (i'm sure you can see the public relations/advertising benefits--"award winning faculty" etc), those teachers who have already indicated by willingness and desire to teach in the current lac (if they're any good, you invite them)..and then you invite applications more generally.  what you DON'T want the school to be is to be populated by volunteers who love the idea and want to see it work and they stay in their own dept and stretch themselves to 'help' the new school...this won't work...it's why a lot of interdisciplinary programs don't work...in the end, faculty have to turn their attention to their home dept...but what if the school of liberal arts and sciences were their home? now you might wonder who would apply, or why an award winning teacher would want to leave their department to come to the school? possibly the whole concept of a liberal arts and sciences education resonates with them, and they want to be a part of it; they want a new challenge, they're bored, been there done that in their dept and want to move on..on but now out of uni (more on that later)...could you get enough people to start the school with the requisite skills and background from a variety of disciplines. i think you could. i really do....let me digress for a moment and say that the rigidity of the department is part of a lot of problems...it leads to turf wars, it lowers creativity, it kills prospects for true collaboration across disciplines. imagine a place where there was more permeability between units. where i as a faculty member am truly considered an employee of UNI and not tethered to a department...where i as a faculty member can become excited about a new initiative or collaboration or unit or school on campus and can apply for it...and move there, where i will be evaluated over there, where my resources (since now they aren't so tightly considered dept resources, they are uni resources) can travel with me..because after all i'm a uni employee..and if i, and the person making the hiring/appointment decisions thinks that i serve uni best in this new capacity, so be it.  the school's courses are now their own, determined by university core values, and campus discussion of what those courses could be, subject to the curriculum cycle for revision and continued growth and development and taught by a devoted faculty--devoted, because it's their dept, they teach them well, they've been chosen. and everyone likes to feel chosen. so what about scholarship/research/creative activity?  well now you have a group of faculty, who are very likely research active (as most excellent faculty are), and what are they going to be doing? they are going to be doing research with people from other departments. they are not bound to their old home dept, though certainly, they'll have a good source of colleagues there..but now the world is their oyster, they can establish research collaborations with anyone from any dept...you get that kind of thing going, and i can nearly guarantee you others (who are in their own regular home depts) will follow. *that's* interdisciplinary. i find so many benefits to this model, that i won't list them here as i've tried to at least hint to them in this paragraph. but i will make one more explicit: we lose excellent faculty all the time because they become disenfranchised, often not from uni as a whole, but from their department. what is their only choice? try an admin route that will allow for partial and sometimes total escape from their department, but more likely--they leave. they leave uni and take their skills and energy and all the resources we've put into them, with them. poof. gone. in large businesses this would be an insane prospect. you lose an excellent, creative employee because they don't like their unit?? no, you move them! microsoft for example has a system of working groups. and you apply to join the groups, and you can leave your group and apply to others...and people aren't moving around willy nilly, there are usually terms associated with the appointment (by time, or project completion)..but you can constantly grow as an employee. there is no such thing as dead wood and burning out...because you can move around, learn, grown. so why can't we do that here? why can't i say, 'my research interests have changed a lot since i arrived here 9, 15, 25 years ago, and i feel like i might be a much better fit in xyz dept or school' ?  why can't that person do that? why must they give up, succumb, become bitter and bored, OR, leave the university altogether. and of course, some people can't leave for a variety of reasons, so by virtue of the system we have (which granted is pretty typical for universities) you end up with deadwood. those truly are the choices WE as a university have created as options for our faculty. at worst, bitter and bored and disengaged; at best--lost opportunity for faculty to develop and grown be more engaged, serve their departments (wherever those may be) well and happily.

now are there details, downsides, politics and logistics that i'm simply glossing over for the sake of utter persuasive intent? you bet. but if you want to go bold, you gotta behave boldly.

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