COACHE Results Support University of Toronto's Large-Scale Communication Strategy

By Meg Starkey

COACHE spotlights member institutions that are delving into their COACHE reports and engaging with their colleagues around disseminating results.  This ‘spotlight’ features the University of Toronto.  I interviewed Sara-Jane Finlay, Director of the Office of Faculty and Academic Life and Stephannie Roy, Projects Officer in the Office of the Vice Provost, Faculty and Academic Life about their dissemination strategy.  So far, they have presented to their Academic Board; President/VPs/Deans; principals/deans/academic directors & chairs; and they post weekly reports and infographics in The Bulletin. You can find more information by clicking here. Their story highlights the importance of timing in attempting to generate an impact on the faculty and faculty leadership.

Background and Context for Disseminating Results

The University of Toronto’s story is shaped by two significant realities.  First, in the past year they experienced a leadership transition with both their President and Provost.  The new Provost started in September, followed by the new President in November.   Fortunately, the new senior leadership has been enthusiastic and supportive of disseminating the 2012 COACHE results to the campus, and has incorporated it into their broader communications strategy.  Also, they are using the COACHE results to guide their work with the faculty.  

Second, the University of Toronto is a very large (>80,000 students) but de-centralized institution, with twenty academic divisions and over 120 departments spread across three campuses.  This underscores the importance of communicating information at the divisional and departmental level, where change is most likely to occur.   Sara-Jane and Stephannie are embarking on disseminating the COACHE results to each division, and are also willing to present the findings to departments, if any should request it, to ensure that as much information gets out as possible.  So far, they have not had any negative feedback.

One of the advantages of being a decentralized campus is that it enables divisions to use their local culture to build solutions that work for them.  Therefore, Sara-Jane and Stephannie’s focus is to get conversations started at the local level.  Sara-Jane commented, “[Central administration] won’t dictate anything; rather we can create programs on mentoring associate professors that provide guidelines and structures.  The divisional leaders are then able to take these and make them their own.”   By doing this, the administration empower divisional leaders and chairs to be effective agents of change in a de-centralized university.

Lessons Learned

Overall, Toronto’s results were generally very positive.  However, that hasn’t made their task of disseminating the information any easier.  Sara-Jane and Stephannie emphasize that it takes a lot of time and commitment to post results on a weekly basis.  The timeframe for getting each report out requires that they prepare each article two weeks in advance.  Because they believe that the communication of the results is very important to the dissemination and implementation phases, they are committed to keeping up a busy schedule.

One caveat that they have is the importance of putting the results in context.  “That’s where the comparative data is helpful because it enables faculty to understand what issues are more universal in nature than others,” said Sara-Jane.  And, by putting the results in a broader context, Sara-Jane and Stephannie hope to mitigate tendencies that some faculty may have of getting caught up in one specific data point and/or searching for a problem that they believe exists.

Also, thinking about and communicating the COACHE results have helped them educate the community about what they can’t change as well as reinforce what they are doing to address long-standing issues.  For example, child care is a big issue for many faculty at the University of Toronto but also an issue for the city more broadly.  It’s an expensive investment in a large metropolitan city like Toronto.   However, the university makes available an annual $2,000 childcare benefit to faculty.  Therefore, in disseminating their COACHE results to each division, Sara-Jane and Stephannie have an opportunity to remind faculty of existing policies/benefits that they may either not been aware of or had forgotten.

Recently, Sara-Jane and Stephannie gave a presentation to the Earth Sciences department, which is small.  In turn, the department has taken the results and used them at their annual retreat.  When they present to the Arts & Sciences division, they will talk to chairs as well.  “There’s a sense of [healthy] competition at Toronto.  If a chair is doing something successful then others will take notice and want to replicate it,” commented Stephannie. 

Measuring Impact

Because of recent leadership changes, the new President and the Provost are particularly interested in hearing about faculty members' experiences of working at the University. Sara-Jane remarked, "The current administration is really interested in how we can use these results to better understand what it is like to be a faculty member at the University of Toronto – they arrived at an opportune time!"  

In sharing results with each division, Sara-Jane and Stephannie recognize that any further decisions or steps taken will be done largely at the divisional and/or department level.  They are hopeful that the departments will start having discussions about issues affecting their faculty because they realize that the solutions will start at the local level. “The dialog needs to be driven by chairs,” remarked Stephannie.

In the short-term, Sara-Jane and Stephannie will gauge the success of their dissemination efforts by the number of requests they get from faculty and/or divisional leadership for more information and data.  They have noticed an uptick around divisions regarding mentoring and associate professors, and are hopeful that the COACHE data will prompt them to take action.

Moving forward, they want to highlight what divisions are doing well, where success is happening, and get that information out to the rest of the campus.  “If others start emulating best practices then we will know that our dissemination strategy has had an impact,” commented Sara-Jane.