Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Working Toward the Ideal Astronomy Department

Today's guest blogger is Bruce Balick. Bruce is a former member of the AAS Council, a former department chair, and the past Chair of the Faculty Senate at the University of Washington.  He has been interested best practices for recruiting and retaining outstanding young faculty with long and productive academic careers ahead of them.

There comes a time in the lives of some academics when they wonder whether they are a happy fit into the their department (or similar professional unit).  To quote from an article in STATUS by Meg Urry, "Many of us have worked in unpleasant environments. What happens? You spend a lot of time thinking about the sources of friction, complaining to yourself and to others about the bad things that have happened, trying to calm distraught colleagues so they won’t leave."

Frustrated department members must wonder whether they or the larger unit are to blame.  Then they ask whether there are some objective standards that they are useful for answering this question. 

Yes, there are. 

A report developed over several years of interviews for the ADVANCE project, endeavors to describe the attributes of an ideal department and its leadership. The document provides useful evaluation standards for people in some degree of stress and some appropriate talking points for discussions with their academic leaders.  Its scope covers the characteristics of vision, resources, leadership, students/student learning, scholarship, collegiality, environment, and spirit that are found in happy units.  However, the document is more a description of characteristics than a recipe for action. 

I received this report
a decade ago from the ADVANCE program when I chaired our department. To this day it's posted on my office wall.  As chair I used this report to set agendas.  Today I quietly use it to chart our progress. Here are two example.

With respect to LEADERSHIP, the ideal department:


1. Has a politically astute department chair
2. Has a chairperson with no agenda except to facilitate
3. Has a chair who represents the department well to the administration and to colleagues across the institution
4. Has a chair who provides constructive feedback
5. Has an open-minded management
6. Has a chair and dean who are transparent in decision-making
7. Has enthusiastic leadership which ensures all faculty are rewarded for the contributions
8. Has shared leadership/governance
9. Has strong, sustained leadership
10. Is one where all faculty realize they exist because of the students
With Respect to COLLEGIALITY, the Ideal Department
1. Is one where everyone can agree to disagree
2. Is one where members are not threatened by having personal views challenged, and where there is a willingness to "park" egos
3. Is one where everyone works and plays well with others
4. Has cohesive and cooperative faculty
5. Is one where there is consensus building, and where members are able to compromise
6. Is one where there is a minimal amount of "deadwood"

Another very useful document summarizes the responses of a job-satisfaction survey that is specific to the faculty at Boston University in late 2009. The main points of concern are summarized in a five-page executive summary in the middle of the document. For example, some areas of concern included:

1. Tenure practices
     periodic, formal performance reviews
     written summary of performance reviews

2. Tenure expectations: Clarity
     campus citizen
     member of community

3. Nature of the work: Teaching
     level of courses you teach
     degree of influence over which courses you teach
     number of students you teach
     quality of graduate students

4. Work and home
     colleagues make raising children and tenure-track compatible

5. Climate, culture, collegiality
     formal mentoring
     peer reviews of teaching or research
     fairness of immediate supervisor's evaluations

6. Compensation and benefits
     financial assistance with housing 

Unfortunately one vital topic that isn't covered in these documents is the way in which a concerned department acts in order to nurture the careers of its members.  Here's a vintage but timeless article written about mentoring young faculty by Marjorie Olmstead at the start of her career in the Physics Department at the University of Washington.  Supportive leadership steps are very easy to identify from her article. Again, some examples:

1.   Protect women and minority faculty from the demands of "tokenism" and the assumption that they are the only appropriate person around to deal with the problems of women and minority students.

2.   Keep an eye on the faculty who opposed the initial appointment.
3. Protect new faculty from "Catch-22" situations designed to exploit their combination of enthusiasm, under-utilized equipment and vulnerability.
4.   Make sure junior faculty are not exploited in group grants or facilities.
5.   Don't let a grant monitor make a tenure decision for your department.
6.   Facilitate access to non-academic resources such as medical care, child care, housing, etc.
7.   Inform new hires about maternity and parental leave policies.
8.   Be aware of dual-career issues.

Identifying departments where people are happy (and loyal) is easy.  Emulating them isn't.  The challenges come in making changes in deep-seated modes of poor behavior -- and getting everyone (yes, everyone) on the long and bumpy bus ride to a good outcome.  That's the first step.  The second is finding the way -- setting viable sort-term goals, articulating strategic aspirations, and defining expectations and new models of conduct. 

Much of the hard work flies below the radar of deans and managers.  Not all, however.  Campus/institution-wide programs that encourage balance in hiring; child care and other forms of vital support that attract valuable incoming faculty; fairness in promotion; and support all faculty at the outset of their (hopefully) long and rewarding careers -- the resources for important actions like these come only from high above.  It takes the village.  You might learn to enjoy if not appreciate one another along the way.