The University Record, April 26, 1999

LS&A faculty honest, respectful in focus group discussions

By Jane R. Elgass

'What distinguishes the LS&A, faculty,' the report states, 'is its deep and abiding appreciation of the existing strengths of the University of Michigan; its strong commitment to the highest standards of research, teaching and service; and its desire to work to improve the quality of life for the College's academic community.' Photo by Bob Kalmbach
That so many faculty responded to the call to discuss broad issues of concern in LS&A impressed Interim Dean Pat Gurin last fall, who notes that the "level of mutual interest and respect faculty displayed makes a significant statement about the quality of LS&A faculty. Their response was simply superb."

Over the course of fall term, more than 200 faculty, representing 30 departments and programs and ranging from lecturers to full professors, participated in 33 focus groups facilitated by their colleagues. With a few exceptions in which faculty formed their own groups, faculty were assigned randomly, resulting in a mix across rank and discipline in each group.

Gurin notes that the inclusion of lecturers in the process was important. "In general, they are superb teachers or they would not be here. But they don't always feel that their opinions are sought. Their involvement in the focus groups, coupled with overall faculty interest, paves the way for continuing discourse about the College's future."

"There are many LS&A faculty involved in governance activities, Gurin notes, "and the vast majority have responsibilities in their departments but not in the College at large. In my year of outreach, our challenge was to hear the voices of faculty who don't have responsibilities in the College."

Results of the discussions, which Gurin says the facilitators described as "lively and thoughtful," recently were shared with faculty in the report "Faculty Lives, Institutional Flexibility and the revitalization of Intellectual Community" and brought to light a number of issues, as well as suggestions for changes.

Gurin has met with the facilitators to identify ideas that can be implemented relatively quickly, as well as those the facilitators believe to be important and that require further discussion and study. These will be discussed at the LS&A Executive Committee's retreat in May, which incoming Dean Shirley Neuman will attend.

Gurin will ask department chairs to implement one of the suggestions this year--rewarding teaching in base salary merit adjustments. "We have exceptional teachers and their work should play an important role in merit increases. This is a significant commitment we can make during the interim."

In inviting faculty to participate in the focus groups last fall, Gurin asked them to identify issues facing the College in the framework of three topics:

  • To what extent are faculty interested in interdisciplinary or cross-disciplinary research and teaching within LS&A or between LS&A and other units, and how can the College best organize and support this interest?

  • Continuing projects such as the First-Year Seminars, Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program and living/learning opportunities have done much to enhance undergraduate education. What should be the next steps in improving undergraduate education?

  • What are the advantages of strengthening faculty ties to the College?

    "What emerged overall," Gurin wrote in "Notes from the Dean" in the Spring 1999 issue of LSA magazine, "was evidence of a profound commitment to the institution and the community, and a deep concern to improve undergraduate education."

    Also clearly evident in the discussions "was a sense that the obligations placed on individual faculty members can be quite overwhelming. . . . Many faculty said that the assumption that every faculty member must be both a superior teacher and a superior scholar--and be active in administrative and outreach activities--is unrealistic," Gurin wrote.

    Junior faculty feel particularly burdened, and asked for "more mentoring, greater support for their scholarship, and a clarification of tenure requirements," Gurin wrote.

    Faculty at all levels expressed a desire for more time for teaching and more significant recognition of excellent teaching, suggesting, possibly, a more flexible approach to tenure and promotion decisions.

    Excerpts of the findings

    Quality of life

    "'This is a conversation about our lives,' was the recurrent theme of the focus groups," the report notes. "Lack of time and a marked change in the quality of life of faculty" were a point of return for discussions regardless of the general topic.

    Administrative demands facing department chairs take away their ability "to focus time on intellectual vision and leadership." Some faculty feel like "employees" rather than professionals and scholars. Members of dual career families face greater and more multiple burdens than in the past.

    It is clear, the report notes, "that time is the most valuable resource for faculty and it is in short supply." Many faculty feel "they have lost autonomy and control over the time needed to be contemplative." Some feel alienated and resentful. Others said the loss of time for creative activity may be responsible for "the impatience with current salary levels."

    Other faculty cited heavy time demands in recruiting faculty and graduate students and in reviewing tenure and promotion documents.

    "At issue was not whether faculty want to work long hours or take on various tasks," the report states. "In fact, it is precisely because faculty today do seek to do everything and do it exceedingly well that they have encountered such problems.

    "Faculty do not wish to do less, but they do seek to pursue excellence in all aspects of academia over the course of their career, not simultaneously. They would like the freedom to declare at different points in their career that they will focus their energies for the next five years on teaching or research or other scholarly activities."

    Tenure and promotion

    "Faculty expressed strong and impassioned views about the reward system with regard to tenure and promotion," the report states. A few supported the status quo, but "most others vigorously argued for change."

    Faculty want to do outstanding research and outstanding teaching and feel the two are complementary. In real life, however, that equation doesn't work, "and the attempt to create the best research university and the best teaching university from the same set of faculty is impractical and professionally debilitating to individual faculty. The end result, because research is so clearly the priority over teaching in terms of the reward structure, is that genuine faculty interest in teaching is severely inhibited."

    Some faculty said the research emphasis is appropriate for the U-M, citing the Thurnau awards and "the fact that deficient teachers could no longer achieve tenure" as evidence of changes in attitudes toward teaching.

    Faculty suggested that their contributions be viewed "in terms of a career of scholarship, rather than on an annual basis"; holding departments accountable for teaching, research and service, letting faculty decide what will be emphasized in any given year; and rewarding good teaching in base salary adjustments.

    Senior faculty spoke of not feeling valued and indicated that post-tenure attrition is a serious issue. They reported that "they don't feel valued post-tenure unless they seek and receive an outside offer." Others criticized the "star" system, saying it results in high salaries, reduced teaching and no service, leaving fewer dollars and heavier work loads for others.

    Junior faculty indicate they come to the U-M "with a high level of interest in research and teaching but are told by their departmental colleagues to focus only on research during their pre-tenure years." However, with many senior faculty involved in research, teaching burdens fall on the newer faculty. "Junior faculty are beset by a lack of clarity regarding tenure and promotion expectations," the report states.

    Concern also was expressed that "the tenure process has a preferential bias in terms of race and gender."

    Lecturers describe themselves as being scholars, but alienated from their departments and the College, explaining their circumstance "as indicative of the low value placed on teaching within LS&A," the report states. They also "resent the fact" that reports about them are written by tenure-track faculty and "often carry a bitter and negative tone reflecting a sense that lecturers are of no value to the College."

    Faculty also criticized current teaching evaluation methods and the ways in which good teaching evaluations are interpreted in departments.

    Interdisciplinary research and teaching

    "To many faculty at Michigan," the report states, "the opportunities here for interdisciplinary work are the University's best feature." There are problems, however.

    Some expressed concern about the "strength and integrity of the disciplines," while others said "disciplinary rigidity and conservatism" prevent more intellectual diversity and experimentation. "They wonder whether problems that exist are not those of faculty not fitting in the disciplines but, rather, of disciplines no longer fitting the faculty," the report notes.

    Obstacles to interdisciplinary work cited by the faculty include lack of fair evaluation of such work at the departmental level and on divisional committees, and the "difficult and often untenable position of faculty with joint appointments." It's also difficult to share grants across departments and colleges. The extra time required for collaboration is not recognized and team teaching is not well supported.

    Units designed to foster collaborative work "report a dire lack of College resource support" compared with disciplinary units.

    Faculty also wonder whether interdisciplinary work "should bubble up from the faculty" or whether there should be administrative support for such efforts.

    Faculty with joint appointments say they are doing double duty and reported that "the structure of joint appointments is ad hoc, unwieldy, redundant and ultimately harmful to the individuals and their efforts to do interdisciplinary research and teaching."

    Undergraduate education

    Faculty repeatedly expressed a desire to be more involved in undergraduate education and teaching, offering many concrete suggestions for change. "Except for a few dissenters," the report states, "there was overwhelming sentiment expressed for having more recognized time and rewarded opportunities to devote to undergraduate education."

    Faculty acknowledged the initiatives undertaken over the past decade, such as the first-year seminars, Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program and living/learning programs, but "made a distinction between discrete initiatives and institutional transformation," adding that the initiatives have had little impact on their departments or faculty rewards.

    Faculty raised and debated the issue of "time and resources needed constantly to support the routine roll-out of initiatives as opposed to a comprehensive transformation of undergraduate education."

    Ties to the College

    "Few faculty expressed a sense of scholarly or community connection to LS&A at the college level," the report states.

    They "seek a greater sense of community and connection with their colleagues, but aren't certain that a closer connection with the College per se is either necessary or desirable. Most important to faculty are issues of time, a rich intellectual environment and a collegial and scholarly community with their peers."

    Faculty indicated that LS&A's "identity" problem might be due to its size, suggesting the creation of interdisciplinary units similar to the Residential College. The smaller units "would allow for an intellectual center, a responsive and friendlier administrative structure, and a much stronger sense of connection and allegiance."

    Also suggested was the appointment of associate deans for each division, with some faculty indicating that this might lead to greater fragmentation. There also was "considerable disagreement on the role of the dean's office."

    "Faculty perceive department chairs and College committees to be working on behalf of the dean and with allegiance to the dean," the report states. "They wonder aloud who is working for faculty and who places their allegiance with the faculty. . . . They would like to view the dean's office as a place for supportive problem-solving rather than policing."