Can teaching be a driver of institutional transformation? We explored the question with Amy Chasteen Miller, executive vice provost at the University of Southern Mississippi, Farah Ward, provost and vice chancellor at Elizabeth City State University, and Scott Furlong, provost and vice president at SUNY Oswego. In this recap of a session at AASCU’s winter academic affairs meeting, their insights suggest that the answer is an unequivocal “yes!”
Q: What’s necessary to make teaching a driver of institutional transformation?
Chasteen: First, you have to think about what sort of transformation you want. For Southern Miss, it was to shift paradigms of our faculty members in regard to their role in student success. We needed our faculty to see their role in not just a student’s performance in the classroom, but also their sense of belonging. To do this, our professors need different teaching skills, but also want a community to talk about teaching and how changes in class make a difference in students’ lives. We see this happening, getting us to a critical mass of faculty, in different disciplines, having this conversation. That becomes institutional transformation.
Furlong: As a faculty member, teaching was essential to what I did, and my connection with students was always extremely important to me–and hopefully to them, as well. But as an administrator, I need to have a mechanism to allow teaching to be an institutional priority. SUNY-Oswego did hundreds of professional development programs a year, but it needed a focus—especially around evidence-based teaching practices. Creating a community, where faculty can discuss their successes and failures is important, too.
Ward: For Elizabeth City, in a rural and poor part of North Carolina, a student connecting with a professor is a real catalyst for upward mobility. To make these connections, faculty need sustained support. It’s not a brown bag lunch. It’s not a one-hour session. The administration has to be invested, too.
Q: What drove your university to look into new ways to improve instruction?
Ward: We had a decline in enrollment, and one thing we’ve seen that elevates enrollment is a commitment to student success initiatives, like curriculum reform and advising. But I realized that the one thing every single one of our students has in common is that they have to go to class. They have to interact with their professors. So while we’ve seen success with student initiatives on the fringes, to make a longstanding impact, it’s imperative that we address the classroom. That’s what drove us to make invest in our faculty, even in tough economic times.
Q: How do you engage faculty in this work?
Chasteen: Some faculty can be skeptical, so there has to be trust that a positive change can happen, as well as some tools they can try. But another key part is that there needs to be affirmation at the upper administration. Faculty need to hear that we appreciate they are taking the time to improve their teaching and that if they take risks in the classroom, we won’t hold it against them. It’s critically important to have that administrative support so that they try new things and watch the positive outcomes come in.
Ward: One thing I did to get faculty involved was to make sure they understand that our goal is to get students engaged. And call me an optimist, but I think if students are engaged, everything else will work out. Faculty also want to learn practices that are relevant. This alone will continue to keep them engaged.
Q: Why did your university choose to partner with ACUE?
Furlong: SUNY-Oswego had already made strides in other student success interventions. The next piece of the puzzle was for instruction to be even more student-oriented. What intrigued me was ACUE’s focus on the role faculty can and should play in student success.
Chasteen: Around 2015, we became interested in finding ways to really transform our teaching by looking in the classroom to extend student success around teaching–beyond early alerts, outreach to students and advising reform. We decided to pilot a program with two cohorts of faculty to see what kind of impact it could make. It was wildly successful. We’ve continued since then and built a really strong culture of transforming teaching on campus.
Q: What’s been key to your success, lessons learned, or any surprises?
Furlong: The first faculty to get involved are very much evangelizers of the program. 100% of them earned their ACUE-credential. And they continue to have meetings to discuss what they’re doing in the classrooms.
Chasteen: We made it an honor to be selected to participate in the program. Faculty can apply or be nominated. We developed what we call our ACUE Faculty Development Professional Institute. We give them a lot of accolades throughout the program. At the end, not only does ACUE come in for a certificate ceremony, we also designate them as an ACUE Distinguished Teaching Scholar, which goes on their signature, a website, and they get a custom-designed medallion they can wear at graduation. We’re an R1 institution, and our faculty is extremely research-focused. Our Institute is a space where we help faculty align the two, so that they can be more effective in the classroom in a way that doesn’t take away from the time they devote to research.
Furlough: We’ve had a number of our faculty write on their course syllabus and tell their students in class that they’re doing an ACUE course and that they’ll be trying some new things—some of which might not work so they asked for pre-forgiveness—collecting data, and writing reflection papers. The students seemed to like that the faculty member was also going through a learning process.
Q: How do you know transformation when you see it?
Ward: We just got our first ACUE progress report . Faculty finds the program very relevant. Our faculty are learning, on average, about three new practices in every learning module, and their implementing at least one of those practices.
Furlough: When we started the program, I was very clear with my faculty that this is not just about taking ACUE’s course—it’s about implementing the recommended practices. My faculty has taken that to heart. Across the board, we see that they’re trying new things and believe these new practices have a positive effect in their classrooms.
Chasteen: We’ve seen those same patterns, and we’ve also noticed change in several of our major gateway classes. Faculty are implementing active learning practices with a fully flipped classroom, and getting much better student outcomes and positive student feedback. There’s also a culture shift where more faculty are more engaged in professional development.
(This Q&A is based on remarks delivered at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) Academic Affairs Meeting in February 2020. It was edited for clarity.)