Spring 2012 Message from Interim Dean Tracy

Dear Colleagues,

Dean TracyI was unable to give a full Dean’s report at the May faculty meeting, because I wanted to allow time for discussion of the report from the Curriculum Review Steering Committee (CRSC). I decided, instead, to include my report to the faculty in an end-of-year letter. That also gives me a chance to make some parting comments as I step down as Interim Dean.

Let me start by providing a brief summary of the year’s highlights. I’ll return to some of these later with further thoughts.

  • As you know from the May faculty meeting, the curriculum review is on track and there should be a full proposal ready for a faculty vote sometime next fall. (More below.)
  • The A&S campaign priorities discussion has advanced significantly this year. We managed to do this while incorporating a large amount of faculty input. We are still in the early stages of the campaign, and much still needs to be done. The first step was to more clearly articulate our priorities. The FAC, DAC, CRSC, and the Dean’s Office, working with our friends in Development, accomplished a lot this year in moving the priorities discussion forward. (More below.)
  • Last fall, A&S received the first major gift of the capital campaign: a fully endowed professorship in Middle East Studies from Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman.
  • For the first time in four years, faculty and staff received a salary increase. Going forward, the BOV has endorsed a series of salary increases as part of its six-year plan.
  • We negotiated several new revenue-sharing agreements with the Provost’s Office: summer school, the St Andrews Joint Degree Program, and D.C. Summer Programs. These new agreements are a financial innovation at the College, and will provide much-needed revenue we can apply to our priorities.
  • The St Andrews Joint Degree Program had its first cohort of students this year. By any measure they are an outstanding group of students. The program is off to a good start.
  • We have several large capital projects underway: the Tucker Hall renovation, the third phase of the Integrated Science Center (ISC3), and the Tyler Hall renovation. Each of these will provide a significant upgrade of our facilities and continue our efforts to have buildings that truly reflect the quality of our programs and faculty. ISC3, in particular, is a large and complicated project involving multiple departments and scientific research facilities. Coming into the project, I was warned that it would be difficult to get the faculty from such disparate departments to work together toward a common goal. In fact, it proved to be straightforward. The proposed design is innovative, aggressively efficient in its use of energy, and will be transformational for the sciences.
  • Conversations on the Arts Complex are moving forward, and it is now on the horizon as the next major project after the Tyler Hall renovation, as evidenced by the change in the official name of the project from "Andrews Hall renovation" to "Arts Complex: Phase 1." Names are important. Much remains to be done, but I hope that planning for this project will pick up momentum and that before long we will have an “integrated arts facility” to complement the science complex nearby.
  • This year the Dean’s Office engaged the faculty in some difficult conversations concerning major changes in policy: a pause in the growth of the number of tenure-eligible (TE) faculty, even while we continue to incrementally grow the size of the student body; the creation of a new category of continuing non-tenure-eligible (NTE) faculty; the temporary conversion of some TE to NTE lines during reallocation; the need to provide more seats in our undergraduate courses without adding more faculty; an open and frank look at the budget situation in A&S, along with a conversation about why we can’t continue with “business as usual” in coming years. These conversations were difficult to listen to, I’m sure, and they were also difficult to lead. It is always the desire of the Dean’s Office to facilitate and empower the faculty to do our best work, and to provide resources for our efforts. It was painful this year to have to say “no” so much, and to telegraph to the faculty that we will be hearing “no” in coming years more than we’ve been used to, even as the campaign continues to gather momentum. I thank the faculty for responding to this difficult conversation with professionalism and collegiality.

Heading out the door, I want to say some things that have been on my mind.

Revolutionary theory says you should first create a crisis, and then move nimbly within the shifting opportunities the crisis opens up. The outside world has created the crisis for us. We are in the midst of a tectonic shift in higher education. We can choose to hunker down and hope for the best, but that is not really a form of hope, but of fear. Hope means taking control of our destiny and deciding to make some bold moves. I believe that some of the bold moves should be to reform the curriculum, to create new centers and programs that promote the ongoing reinvention of our creative efforts, and to reenergize the intellectual commons. There are other changes we will be urged to make, of course, but I want to focus on these three interlocking moves because in my opinion they would create a surge of positive energy, build on our strengths, and make us more distinctive.

What is our biggest challenge going forward? It is tempting to simply say “the budget situation.” But we have prevailed in the past when we faced difficult budget times. I think the greatest challenge ahead of us is to deal with the budget situation while staying true to ourselves. We risk a turning away from our intended purpose if we are not attentive to what is at stake at this particular moment in the life of the College.

Our strategic plan highlights the fact that we are a residential liberal arts institution with an ambitious agenda for our research and scholarship. This model was debated and endorsed by the faculty, the administration, and the BOV, during the initial strategic-planning discussions four years ago. The external economic and political landscape has undergone upheaval since then, but the faculty’s commitment to this model of education has not wavered. I will talk more in a moment about the implications of this commitment to the blending of liberal arts and serious research, and why I believe it is important for us to stay true to this vision. Any moves we make in the months and years ahead, for example to “rebalance” the mix of TE/NTE faculty, to provide more “course content” online, and so forth, should be carried out while holding fast to the commitment that we are a community of teacher-scholars who work primarily face-to-face with our students, and that faculty research is the wellspring of our intellectual fountain.

At any fine university the academic program is created and led by the faculty. One major challenge we face in coming years will be to implement curricular changes as the outcome of this year’s ongoing review. We have always anticipated that new resources will be needed for the new curriculum. In the Dean’s Office we have highlighted this fact in our campaign priorities without preempting the faculty conversation that is still underway. There is a coordination challenge here that we must all be willing to navigate. The campaign is already underway, and the “leadership” gift conversations are already well along. We need to move nimbly to get our big ideas into those conversations and into campaign planning. But we must do this while respecting the fact that the new curriculum will be designed and approved by the faculty.

The campaign presents significant opportunities for us to build bridges among the faculty, the Dean’s Office, the Brafferton, the W&M communications team, Development, the BOV, the Foundation Board, and the Alumni Association. These linkages should be strong, open, and collegial. Attending to the health of these relationships will pay big dividends for us in the long term.

Staying true to ourselves while dealing with the budget situation breaks down further into a few sub-challenges:

  • We will never really “fix the budget” until we move closer to market with our in-state tuition rates. We cannot continue to lose money on every in-state student while asking the out-of-state students to provide the subsidy to keep the place afloat. This issue is politically fraught, of course.
  • We must continue to make progress on salaries for all our faculty and staff. Otherwise we will lose our ability to attract and retain outstanding people. This requires staying true to our sense of fairness and equity, not just a commitment to compete in the marketplace.
  • As tuition goes up, we must remain committed to keeping W&M diverse and open to all socioeconomic backgrounds. Opportunity based on talent, merit, and commitment – not affluence – should remain our touchstone.
  • Faculty relations with the BOV need continual attention. It is important for the faculty leadership to be assertive in bringing the faculty agenda to the table, while working with the BOV in a constructive fashion. We tend to oscillate between quietude and upset. We need to find a middle ground that is steady and assertive, and grounded on the bedrock principle that the faculty create, govern, and deliver the academic program – which is the central purpose of the place.

I have spent much of the last four years involved in faculty governance and strategic planning, and chaired the subcommittee for Challenge 1, affectionately known to cognoscenti as Das Uberchallenge. Strategic planning is something guaranteed to sedate the most alert mind, but let me try to put Challenge 1, and its two associated Goals, into my own words in a single sentence:

 Embrace what we have become by recommitting to the liberal arts and promoting the creative life.

Where does this lead? Our aim should be, as it always has been, to create a place of study and society that has a strong sense of common purpose, where we support the creativity of our faculty, staff, and students. That’s the greatest opportunity we have to remain true to ourselves.

In all the pressures we face to reinvent ourselves, there is a spirit here that is at risk. Breathing new life into that spirit is part of the current moment that could slip away if we are not attentive. One trend in higher education is to commoditize and exploit ‘brand names’ that have taken several generations of faculty effort to build. The W&M ‘brand’, in particular, is clearly based upon the strength of Arts & Sciences. If we – the faculty – lack the confidence to hold fast to what makes W&M special, and we let others determine where we should focus attention, how we should teach (e.g., online versus face-to-face), how we should talk about ourselves to our alums and the wider world, and where we should look for support, then in what sense do the faculty guide the institution? We lead only if we can find our voice and assert ourselves.

For example, here’s one story that is easy to grasp for many of our supporters: We are great at helping our students pursue their dreams. We can tell this story in many ways, but let’s follow one narrative thread concerning the undergraduate preparation we provide for future Ph.D.s in the sciences. We can also tell impressive stories about our preparation of students in the humanities and the arts, but I chose the science subplot because the NSF did the background research for us by releasing a study of the baccalaureate origins of science Ph.D.s (see note below). We made the top 50 both in per capita production and in raw numbers of future Ph.D.s. Here is the list of universities that made both top 50 lists: UC Berkeley, Cornell, MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Yale, Brown, Duke, U Chicago, Cal Tech, Johns Hopkins, and W&M.

Why are we so humble? The only reason we appear on this short list of world-class institutions is because W&M faculty are active researchers working at a high level, and therefore we know how to prepare our students for the next stage in a research career. What I take from the NSF study is that W&M is already working at an elite level using limited resources and without a firm grasp of the central importance of faculty research by some parts of the wider university community. Faculty research at W&M is often like Clementis’ Hat (see note below).

The occasional lack of understanding by some of our friends of the central role of faculty research at W&M is both a problem and an opportunity. The opportunity is to figure out how to tell our stories in a way that is both compelling and true. You do this through the expository discipline of a campaign. Teaching the rest of the College how to talk about what we do in A&S is a great opportunity for us, and is part of building those closer ties between A&S, Development, the BOV, the Foundation Board, the Alumni Association, etc.

Why is this so important? It’s not just about money. Choices we make in coming years can make us a stronger and more distinctive institution, one that is more global, one that is more inclusive and diverse in all the best senses of those words, one that is more visible as a center of important and influential work, and one that can be a truly distinctive blending of high-quality teaching with world-class research; or we can slip into one of the more traditional niches in the higher ed ecological landscape. In any of the traditional niches we become one of many.

Let me end by first thanking the Provost and the President for the opportunity to serve as Interim Dean. It has been an education. I appreciate very much the fact that everyone at the College treated me not as "Interim" but as "the Dean." It allowed us to work together on the A&S agenda and not lose a year.

I would like to take this opportunity to welcome the incoming Dean, Kate Conley. Dean Conley and I have already met several times and the transition is well underway. The next few years will be challenging for A&S, and I know she will value the support and collective wisdom of the faculty and staff as much as I have this year.

I also want to thank the entire Ewell Team, both deans and staff. These colleagues have provided a wonderful daily work environment, and as a result I have found this year one of the most enjoyable of my entire career. They are a group of talented and dedicated people. Our weekly dean team meetings were barely contained anarchy, but somehow we got a lot of work done. I am grateful to all of the Ewell folks for welcoming me, and for letting me know by their openness and frankness that they considered Ewell a supportive place where we could share our thoughts freely. I will miss working with them.

I also want to thank all of the faculty and staff in A&S for the support and understanding you have shown this year as we struggled through some very difficult things. You have renewed my belief that when you treat people like adults they respond in kind. One of my goals this year was to help the faculty find our voice. I hope we made some progress, and that we’ll continue to work on that. Thank you for your kind words of support this year, especially after meetings where I had to pass on some bad news, or when I had to say “no.” The vast majority of interactions with you have confirmed my belief that we are a community of talented individuals with deeply shared values. I am privileged to work with such colleagues, and I look forward to getting back in the trenches.

Thanks for a great year.

Eugene R. Tracy
Chancellor Professor of Physics, and
Interim Dean of Arts & Sciences

 

Notes:

The NSF includes the social sciences in this study. I thank Paul Heideman for bringing this report to my attention.

In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera tells the story of Clementis, the Czech communist party leader who offered his hat to a colleague on a cold winter’s day during a group photo. Clementis was later purged and hanged, and his image erased from the photo. All that remained of Clementis in the official history was his hat on the other man’s head. Speaking about undergraduate research without foregrounding the fact that the quality of those opportunities flows from high-quality faculty research is like this erasure.