Rethinking New Faculty Orientation

 

We’re in the process of rethinking the New Faculty Orientation Program. First and foremost, we’re rethinking it as a program, not a series of events. But equally as importantly, we’re rethinking “orientation.” What does it mean to orient a new faculty member for success in an educational climate that, as seen in Congressman Miller’s above video, is reimagining student movement through the educational system?

Incentivized by a funding formula that rewards retention and graduation rates, APSU staff, faculty, and administrators routinely pilot innovative retention efforts in teaching, advising, support services, predictive analytics, course scheduling, co-curricular activities …. Increasingly, Austin Peay employees investigate student experiences that negatively impact student success and are a high priority for the institution to remedy. But how do you do that, and what do you do once you’ve done that? And how do you orient new faculty to this burgeoning way of thinking?

Whether we’re teaching, advising, or brainstorming systemic obstacles to student progression, we’re first and foremost thinking from diverse student perspectives: online students, military students, nontraditional students, first-generation college students, low-income students …. From their perspectives, what impedes their abilities to access course content, acquire skills, make appropriate choices, or progress efficiently through degree pathways?

Whether proposing a course redesign, rethinking advising as redirecting students from inappropriate majors, or creating a seamless learning environment, we’re thinking from diverse stakeholder perspectives: students, faculty, academic deans, staff, administrators, regents, accreditors, politicians, parents — complete with common misconceptions that can undermine the change process. Student perspectives are the starting point, but a successful faculty member has to think from still other perspectives.

If we’re determining the appropriate staffing for a new initiative, then we have to benchmark what peer institutions have done, use existing research to estimate the initiative’s impact on student retention, calculate that impact at $8500 a student, and justify the additional staffing costs per the return on that investment. Because we don’t like to reduce human beings under our charge to dollars and cents, this interpretive frame is an icky one that makes a lot of us cringe and need a shower.

But in order to succeed, our faculty need to be able to access that interpretive frame — and others. To orient new faculty, we have to provide them with opportunities to enhance their capacities for shifting between interpretive frames. That skill is the foundation for innovation — and essential for student, staff, faculty, and institutional success in today’s educational climate.

So how can a New Faculty Orientation Program help faculty develop their skills for changing interpretive frames?

Although the answer to that question is more complex, an orientation program should disorient. It should provide sustained engagements with diverse perspectives so as to undermine stable vantage points with their stubborn preconceptions. It should facilitate in-depth conversations with diverse student bodies and other key stakeholders. It should fit new faculty with radically different interpretive lenses to wear each day.

Prof Dev and New Campus Initiatives

Campus-led professional-development programs with a team project can facilitate new campus initiatives.

On one side, if the president, provost, a faculty-senate committee, or others spearhead a new initiative, they can work with faculty developers to incorporate it into the appropriate programs. Addressing new initiatives in existing programs raises awareness, creates a venue for faculty to work through misconceptions or concerns, garners buy-in by enabling faculty to brainstorm nuances and implementation, and generates at least more informed faculty, if not champions for the cause.

On the other side, professional-development programs can lead to the participants’ devising their own initiatives. By meeting with stakeholders during the investigative process — whether that investigation is in service-learning, advising separated from course scheduling, or the organizational location of Career Services — participants raise stakeholder awareness, possibly build coalitions, and potentially inspire their own champions.

Campus-led, cohort-building professional development is a communication channel. It promotes the sense of campus community, improves organizational efficiency, and encourages adaptability. Most importantly, it empowers faculty.

Adventures at Austin Peay, Part II

When I arrived, the APSU faculty were ripe for cultural change. Two administrations prior, the Faculty Senate had passed a vote of no confidence in response to the president’s financial mismanagement. The Board of Regents then hired what I would call a transitional president, someone who would sacrifice likability to impose fiscal order. By the time President Hall arrived, the university had a budgetary surplus and a once-active faculty now eager for freedom.

The economic climate of higher education also played a major role. The economic downturn had exasperated already over-exhausted state resources. It encouraged many states to experiment, and Tennessee adopted an experimental state funding formula. The new formula changed the funding metrics from the number of full-time students enrolled, to the percentage of different student bodies retained, the amount of external grants awarded, and the number of students graduated. Each state institution had to determine which percentage of its state funding would come from which metric. Having a new president with his finger on the pulse and a statistician for a provost, Austin Peay stood poised to gain. Whereas other state institutions may have been unprepared to accurately predict specific areas in the formula where the university could achieve improvements, Provost Denley specialized in predictive analytics. Dr. Denley attributed the highest percentages to the specific metrics he knew we could most improve, and Austin Peay has been on the top of the food chain ever since.

In a climate of furloughs and layoffs, Austin Peay’s employees earned raises, and the faculty’s enemy shifted from the administration acting all administrationy, to an external economic monster that eats institutional stagnancy for breakfast. President Hall became our articulate captain against the leviathan; Provost Denley, his trusted first mate.

And with the help of the prior administration’s budgetary surplus, one-time federal stimulus money, and a Title III grant, they empowered a once-active faculty now eager for change.

If you haven’t guessed, I’m writing my way into a better understanding of what happened here, because whatever it was or is, it’s magnificent.

Adventures at Austin Peay, Part I

After five years of designing, coordinating, and assessing professional-development programs under the dynamic, innovative leadership at Austin Peay State University, I’m starting this blog to work out my experiences for better understanding. During this brief time, APSU has undergone a massive cultural transformation, even achieving for the last two consecutive years the Honor Roll for The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Great Colleges To Work For — in part for our professional-development opportunities. Not that I’m assuming responsibility. My arrival coincided with whatever is the positive equivalent of a perfect storm.

President Hall had assumed his position only the prior year, and at a time of extreme distrust of administration, he conducted routine listening meetings. He truly listened, acted on employee concerns, clarified the reasoning behind decisions, and began the process of opening communication and pushing agency down through the ranks.

Provost Denley, a mathematician with experience in course redesign, joined the campus several months before I did. In addition to rethinking the role of provost as a data analyst armed with predictive analytics, he used the prior administration’s budgetary surplus, one-time federal-stimulus money, and our Title III grant to incentivize faculty interactions and initiatives geared towards innovating for student success.

Both President Hall and Provost Denley came from Ole Miss, where I was finishing my Ph.D. They encouraged those involved with the design of the Center for Teaching and Learning to look at Ole Miss’s for an example. After having taught a particularly bad class, I had spent the prior two years practically living at Ole Miss’s Center. I enjoyed my learning experiences there so much that at one point I asked the director, Dr. Johnny Lott, “How do I get your job?” Johnny took me under his wing, showed me his budget and design plans for new learning spaces, and brainstormed faculty-development ideas with me. When the APSU delegates arrived, they asked Johnny whom he would recommend to run their faculty development, and Johnny said, “I know only one person.” He recommended me.

I’m forever grateful to Johnny.

This July, I will have been at APSU for five years. When I arrived, people warned me that many faculty wouldn’t trust professional-development programs, only events. According to the argument, most faculty feared that the Center was an extension of the administration, to control even how the faculty taught. Five years later, APSU is one of the best colleges to work for, and I operate by a mantra: programs, not events. The faculty are hungry for opportunities.

And I’m proud to serve them.