Helping Faculty to be Engaged and Productive

Academic leaders can have a tremendous effect on faculty satisfaction and productivity. Part of the responsibility of being an academic leader is to provide appropriate guidelines and support to foster faculty productivity throughout their careers, says Susan Robison, a psychology professor at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland.

In an interview with Academic Leader, she offered the following advice on how to support faculty:

  • Clearly articulate what it means to be a productive faculty member. Administrators have to solve the “productivity paradox,” embracing the need for clear guidelines without being too rigid. “Rigid criteria can get an institution into trouble because it’s hard to apply the same criteria across the curriculum. What operates in the field of English may not work very well in bioengineering, for example,” Robison says.
  • Remind faculty that they are the institution’s most valuable resource. “Emphasize in whatever kind of PR materials they put out regarding faculty that the faculty are the greatest resource for the educational goals of the institution. … Faculty need to be honored and respected for being that resource. Sometimes administrators might presume that and not say it. It needs to be said, and the behaviors need to be matched to the words,” she says.
  • Match faculty to the institution. “Job candidates are evaluated based on publications and letters of recommendation. Of course, these are worthy devices to evaluate them, but no one ever asks the candidate, ‘Do you match our culture?’ I think this is an important question in getting new faculty on board who are satisfied and engaged, and to prevent pre-tenured faculty from being denied tenure, prevent midcareer faculty from burning out, and prevent late-career faculty from becoming stale,” Robison says.
  • Talk to faculty members about their shifting interests/career priorities. “As we grow in our positions, sometimes our interests change. I would put the responsibility on the chair to create an atmosphere where those kinds of conversations might be comfortable. Usually there’s some sort of annual performance evaluation at most places, either leading up to tenure or to a contract renewal at institutions that don’t have the tenure system. Oftentimes it’s the chair’s responsibility to have those conversations, and I think a good question would be, ‘To what degree are your strengths being utilized by our department, and is there any way we can make better use of your strengths?’ That might be an open-ended way to begin that conversation. It’s going to depend on the communication skills of the chair to be able to field that sort of conversation,” she says.
  • Support professional and faculty development. “Depending on the mission and goals of the institution, [professional development] is going to be interpreted differently. A four-year college that emphasizes teaching may fund and support, emotionally as well as fiscally, faculty development to improve teaching, whereas a research institution might support grant-writing workshops and things like that, that fit those institutional priorities,” Robison says.

Excerpted from Helping Faculty to Be Engaged and Productive, Academic Leader, May 2009.