How One University is Creating Sustainable Faculty/Administrator Working Groups

by Todd Benson

Recently I had the chance to speak with Berit Gundersen at the University of the Pacific. As the Associate Provost for Faculty Affairs, Gundersen lead the initiative to bring the COACHE Faculty Job Satisfaction survey to the University of the Pacific in 2014. In our discussion, she mentioned that even years later, faculty and administrators are discussing the results - even during a dinner at the President’s home this past spring. It made me wonder what aspects of their approach allowed the work to sustain itself for so long, so Berit and I dug in to try to understand what worked. Some themes began to appear that might be valuable for other institutions that wish to engage their faculty in data driven discussions.

 

Build a Diverse Project Team

 

At the University of the Pacific, having a strong team to work with the survey results was one key to their success. For the University of the Pacific, that meant having a team diverse enough to see the data from multiple perspectives. “With your faculty, you have lots of bright people, some quantitative and some qualitative. How your faculty see the data will be very different based on their background,” said Gundersen. Even though the results of the COACHE survey are primarily quantitative, there are some qualitative aspects. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, survey follow up often required additional exploration through focus groups, interviews, and other public forums. Those exercises refined the collective understanding of the issues, generated consensus around the most pressing issues, and cultivated a climate where faculty felt acknowledged. Regardless of the approach to the results, having a team diverse enough to engage faculty across the institution was fundamental to making a lasting impact.

 

Lead with Clear Expectations and Goals

 

Building a team and managing a team are two very different exercises. In this case, one of Gundersen’s key lessons was to manage expectations and set clear goals from the onset. Having a sense of the endgame early in the process allowed the team to focus their energy. She admitted that choosing priorities was a challenge. The Faculty Job Satisfaction survey covers a great deal, and when institutions try to address everything, they end up addressing nothing. Using the team to narrow the focus to a few key issues took time but paid dividends.

 

Another expectation was that the team began each discussion with the data. That may seem like an obvious choice but it requires discipline to stay on task. When working with a team of faculty from diverse backgrounds on complicated issues, it can be difficult to stay the course. Being disciplined enough to begin each discussion with the data helped to focus their attention.

 

Prioritize Transparency in Internal Communications

 

When it came to disseminating the survey results, a focus on transparency was crucial. Gundersen mentioned that this is a part of the culture at the University of the Pacific. Having a discussion with the team about the culture - that is, how faculty feel about data usage, can be a good first step. Another aspect that was particularly helpful was ensuring that the team had a clear understanding about the methodology. The team wanted to focus the discussion on the results but if faculty questioned the methods, it could derail the dialogue.

 

Often, we hear about campuses sharing the COACHE results in total. There is certainly some value to that approach in the beginning, however, those sorts of broad presentations can limit faculty engagement and focus. The dissemination strategy at the University of the Pacific was multifaceted. It took into account both the survey themes and the audience. Topical sessions on interdisciplinary work and faculty recognition addressed pragmatic issues. At the same time, the team also facilitated discussions with Associate Professors and women. Because the sessions were targeted, attendance and engagement were both strong. Faculty participated in the sessions that were salient to their experience and came prepared to discuss their experiences.

 

Look for Points of Synergy Among Initiatives

 

The COACHE survey was never a standalone project at the University of the Pacific. The project team and the Provost’s Office were particularly good at linking the COACHE data to other initiatives. While the data did create some new goals, it also supported existing projects. For example, a focus on the Interdisciplinary section of the COACHE report aligned nicely with the development of Media X, a new interdisciplinary degree program. The results from the COACHE survey and subsequent discussions with faculty pinpointed some challenges that the University of the Pacific would face in instituting this new program.

 

Concluding Thoughts

 

Gundersen mentioned that, in her experience, those of us in the academy are often concerned about constantly moving forward and being busy. This work is, by its nature, very slow and requires both time and reflection. Gundersen used the analysis, prioritization, and dissemination of COACHE data as an opportunity to encourage reflection within the community. It can be difficult to set time aside, but the investment paid off with a higher level of engagement around the data. With a bit of forethought and patience your institution too can ensure that your data-centric initiatives make a lasting impact.