What We Can Learn from Engaged Faculty

What does it actually look like when faculty are made true partners in the hard work of change?

Photo by Greg Andersen via Flickr.

Conversations in higher education reform, like those in K-12 reform, seem to be shifting. Particularly in campus-level reform efforts, higher education leaders are increasingly embracing faculty engagement as essential to creating sustainable change. But what does it actually look like when faculty are made true partners in the hard work of change?

Through our work, we have seen many examples of authentic and meaningful faculty engagement. We have also seen many examples of college cultures that are not conducive to deep, shared ownership of efforts to improve student success. But describing what exactly it takes to create healthy cultures for creative collaboration and student-centered innovation is no easy task.

Of course, what institutional leaders do matters. Many leaders feel that they are too busy or are under too much pressure to stop to listen and empower faculty at all levels. But few lasting gains can be made in the absence of distributed leadership.

Yet institutional leaders are not the sole drivers of institutional culture. In this blog, I want to focus on what we can learn from the traits and beliefs of engaged faculty who work in healthy college environments. These environments are conducive to creative collaboration and genuine shared vision and ownership of comprehensive, innovative efforts to boost student success.

Given the particular characteristics of the higher education academic enterprise, efforts to engage faculty face different obstacles than similar efforts regarding teachers in K-12 reform. For example, many academic disciplines are dominated by a core belief that subject matter expertise and creative autonomy in teaching and learning are the professional gold standard. Historically, subject matter expertise has also been viewed as tantamount to expertise in pedagogy and assessment of student learning, despite the fact that little attention has been paid by many disciplines to either.

Today, all comprehensive efforts to help more students succeed in meeting their educational goals and fulfilling their potential depend on shifting our focus to what is best for students. This consideration, apart from the traditions of academic disciplines, must drive decision making. This means that collaboration, rather than autonomy, must be the gold standard. The loss of full creative autonomy is for many faculty a hard shift to make, for many of us were made implicit promises by our disciplines about autonomy in the classroom that canít be defended in practice.

Real leadership involves giving up some control, and this is a hard lesson for both institutional leaders and faculty to learn.

So what are the traits that all engaged faculty have in common, regardless of the specific innovations theyíre involved with?

  • They see a strong connection between their personal values and the goals of the innovation being adopted by their institution.
  • They believe that innovating on behalf of better outcomes for students is important, important now, and is valued and expected by their colleagues and leaders.
  • They understand how the changes that they must make fit with other institutional priorities and their own professional identities.
  • They feel respected, heard and valued by their departments and institutional leaders.
  • They believe that they have the support and guidance to be successful in their roles.

Most change entails loss. Those who embrace change do so because they believe the gains will outweigh the losses. Yet we cannot, through anxiety or impatience, fail to honor the reality of loss or gloss over the importance of working through the losses entailed when shifting from a focus on teaching to a focus on fostering learning.

By considering the traits of engaged faculty Iíve outlined here, itís my hope that more people eager to make change will pause to seriously consider how their own work and day-to-day practices and habits of communication either support or impede the development of healthy, inclusive cultures for innovation on behalf of better outcomes for students.

This blog is the second in a three-piece series from Alison on the vital importance of authentic stakeholder engagement in higher education reform. Read the first piece in the series here.


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