April 17, 2006
By Dru Riley Evarts
Ways in which Vision OHIO can enhance faculty development initiatives and strengthen university-community relations were the subjects of two sets of focus groups convened on April 8. Input was gathered on participants' thoughts regarding the goals of the university and how those goals should be further refined and implemented.
Thirty persons participated in five groups -- two faculty groups and three others made up of persons representing agencies from throughout the 29-county Southeast Ohio area. Each group had one facilitator and two recorders/observers who are students in the Executive Weekend Ph.D. Program in Higher Education.
Higher Education faculty members Valerie Martin Conley and Marc Cutright prepared a thematic report on the reflections and recommendations of these groups after the leaders and their graduate students separately merged the thoughts of the academic groups into one thematic report and the thoughts of the community groups into another. These reports are now being circulated among appropriate Vision OHIO task forces so they can use them as guidance in formulating their plans, according to Provost Kathy Krendl.
Saying that they need continued support throughout their careers, faculty members expressed the feeling that the research support system is sufficient for pre-tenure faculty (a factor described as appropriate), but such support diminishes for mid-level faculty. They said the problem is exacerbated by diminishing availability of external funds, so the university will have to devise a way to provide the needed support so that research and publishing productivity can rise.
In respect to teaching, these groups recommended that there should be substantive workshops for experienced faculty, and that these should be held at times convenient for interested faculty to attend. They also recommended informal faculty development opportunities. The work of the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) and the Center for Innovations in Technology for Learning (CITL) was complimented, and continued funding of both was recommended. Revival of Faculty Learning Communities was also recommended.
Mentoring was a concern of the faculty groups, which said the structured mentoring system should be stronger, mentors should be trained and supported, and mentoring should be valued through released time and recognized in promotion/tenure decisions. Additional needs of international, female and minority faculty should be recognized.
With respect to the Faculty Learning Commons being planned for Alden Library, these focus groups recommended that it should be staffed by professional, full-time, knowledgeable people; it should include support for both research and teaching; and it should centralize and revitalize CTE, CITL and FLC.
Faculty members also would like to see the Faculty Learning Commons be a comfortable place in respect to furniture, refreshments and convenient parking.
The reward structure for faculty also was discussed, with special concern for "hidden responsibilities" that are sometimes overlooked or taken for granted rather than being included in the evaluation process.
Among the examples mentioned were coordinating laboratories, placing students in field experiences, typing and copying or doing other duties that would be done by clerical assistants or secretaries if they were plentiful enough.
Other issues about which faculty members exchanged ideas in these two groups included: fears that their concerns would not be truly addressed, worries that responsibility-centered budgeting could cause a loss of funding for the library, and suggestions that classrooms should have uniform technology so that smaller classes meeting in high-tech-equipped rooms will not be bumped when a larger class needs that equipment.
These groups expressed the feeling that the faculty should work more closely with the community, but they said instruction on how to do that is needed. They also suggested that Vision OHIO may be trying to do too many things at once. A final suggestion was that the university should make long-term financial commitments to projects, including supporting projects that had been commenced with grant monies and continuing to support labs that had been built with university monies.
The Institute for Local Government Administration and Regional Development (ILGARD) and the Voinovich Center were highlighted by the community groups as models of success in reaching out to the Southeast Ohio community. In fact, they suggested that other units of the university might learn from these two.
Ohio University should focus on Southeast Ohio issues and concerns, these groups said, with regional issues, including the environment, education, poverty and economic development. In working with the 29-county community, these focus group members said university representatives should cooperate, not compete, with public agencies, and they definitely should not take over initiatives within the domain of these agencies. Input from community leaders should be sought early in program development, they said.
Faculty, staff and students of the university should be much more involved with public schools throughout the area, from kindergarten through 12th grade, participants said. They particularly criticized university researchers who were eager to seek permission to come to regional schools and groups with questionnaires and other research projects, but rarely (in some cases, never) returned to give the results and explain what they meant or how life could be improved by implementing the study's findings.
Service learning projects for students should be expanded so that more regional schools benefit from them and more students have that experience, they said. The groups acknowledged that some of these projects already are strong, but they need more participants. Additional funding is needed so that students get training and the chance to develop management skills as they do their service learning projects, they recommended.
Another major suggestion was that Ohio University must increase its capacity to recruit and retain Southeast Ohio students. One man mentioned that the university should recruit Appalachian Ohio students in such a way that they will want to enroll here because they understand the strengths of particular programs, not because of proximity, cost or other factors, such as feeling "it's the only place I can go."
Community leaders also want technical assistance from the university to help them develop needed projects. But, they said, red tape and grant fees presently make partnering difficult or impossible. They suggested that grant and aid procedures be studied carefully to make them more "user friendly" to applicants.
Dru Riley Evarts was recently appointed as the university editor.