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Dean's column: You've been heard

Thursday, February 23, 2017

When we shared with you some brief highlights of our anonymous feedback survey earlier this year, we also promised to share more detail on our progress and plans regarding key issues. I have read every comment and in the process discovered many broader themes represented. I appreciate the time many of you spent in sharing your thoughts and am pleased to now share with you a detailed overview of key issues identified in the survey and our initial response to each of those areas.

This document outlines common themes from the feedback and provides more detail on the status of each issue. These issues represent common topics raised by many respondents. Many issues are complex and will take some time to address fully. While we wanted to indicate our efforts to move forward, we don’t present progress to indicate “mission accomplished!” In most cases we still have considerable work to do and we will continue to push forward with your help.

Many noticed and appreciated our efforts to tackle the difficult issues facing the College with innovative approaches such as faculty-student mentoring, Winter Session and the hiring of an associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion. At the same time, we received a wide range of thoughtful feedback regarding the challenges facing the College.

I have tried to be as comprehensive as is feasible in this format, but also please know we are considering every issue raised. Even those points unaddressed here are now on our radar and in some cases already receiving attention. Nonetheless, your genuine sense of being heard is crucial. I encourage you to reach out to me at clasdean@ku.edu if you have concerns, particularly if there is something missing that you believe should be mentioned or discussed in more detail.

A core priority of the dean’s office is making sure you are informed and given the opportunity to be an active participant in our collective path forward. The College is vast and complex, and no one is a better authority on our needs than our faculty and staff. We rely on your insight to make the right decisions. As we continue to seek your input, it is important that we all consider the full picture, including both our strengths and our struggles.

Thank you for all that you do for the College.


Key Issues in the College

#1: Marshaling support for the liberal arts and sciences and its role on campus and in society

Several respondents voiced concern about the continuing trend of marginalization of the liberal arts and sciences. We realize we have much to do in this domain and the College has taken several steps to articulate the importance of the liberal arts and sciences. Some worried about the impact of several of our entrepreneurial strategies (e.g., expansion of online courses and the introduction of winter courses) on the foundational mission of the College. We believe we are able to consider new strategies that support our budget while also preserving our mission and rigor (see #4 for examples). Many agreed with our perspective but we understand the importance of being skeptical of our new approaches and ensuring they remain consistent with our values.

Progress and plans:

  • We hired the first-ever recruiter in the College and the dean participated in the Rock Chalk Roadshow recruitment tour throughout Kansas (along with several students and faculty from the College).
  • We are working with the Office of Undergraduate Studies and the University Core Curriculum Committee (UCCC) to determine how to best support the liberal arts and sciences (and particularly the humanities) within the KU Core. We are also exploring options for the future based on findings, feedback and student needs as they relate to the liberal arts and sciences (see #9 as well for more specifics on the KU Core).
  • We held the State of the College, which directly addressed this issue. Most importantly, we are undertaking strategic planning in the College this semester. This will allow the College as a whole and our individual units to not only articulate support for the liberal arts and sciences but also to clearly identify other practical strategies to make this point and greater emphasize the role of the liberal arts on campus and across the state/nation.

#2: Composition and operations of the dean’s office

Several individuals voiced concern about the size of the dean’s office and overall number of administrators. In this difficult budget period, we have hired in areas that contribute most directly to the overall mission of the College, and we have applied the same fiscal responsibility to the dean’s office as we have done across the College. Moreover, there were concerns raised regarding the clarity of policies and procedures coming from our office and in the consistency with the policies and procedures at the campus level as well as at the individual unit level.

Progress and plans:

  • The College dean’s office underwent significant reorganization last year. Based on needs across the College we added a chief of staff, additional web support and an associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). We also repurposed several positions to create staff support for research and address space needs. The feedback regarding these additions has been extremely positive and we have become a leader on campus in DEI efforts. At the same time, we made some difficult staffing decisions and identified services that could be accomplished in more efficient ways. For instance, we combined small associate dean portfolios, took a more targeted approach to alumni outreach activities, and reconfigured digital media services. These changes have occurred with no appreciable loss of services and/or concerns voiced from students, faculty, or staff. Most importantly, the changes were strategic and resulted in an overall reduction of more than $200,000. Particularly as we push through a challenging budget period we will continue to take fiscal responsibility seriously and will consider other targeted changes for the coming year.
  • After seeing many concerns regarding a sensed lack of clarity and consistency in policies and procedures at all levels, we are undertaking a thorough review of policies and procedures. Our goal is transparency. Our review and subsequent adjustments in practice are in collaboration with the Policy Office and the provost’s office. We are also working with individual units where necessary and appropriate. All changes have been, and will continue to be, vetted with a faculty review period. Towards this same end, the College Academic Council is working with the dean this semester to revise the College bylaws.
  • Regarding clarity on decisions and processes put in place by the College, we agree that our ability to build on our strengths requires continuity, consistency and transparency from CLAS administration. We are developing a comprehensive handbook for the dean’s office that will ensure clear communication about, for example, when College events will happen and outlines timelines for such activities to ensure they are closely followed. Events such as the State of the College and the Student Summit are efforts to connect and engage directly and openly with faculty, staff and students. We will also continue to communicate regularly using the College Monthly newsletter and other avenues to keep lines of communication strong.

#3: Resources and strategies to enhance research development and impact across all levels

Issues shared regarding research largely concerned the extent to which we have (and are allocating) the resources needed to be competitive with our AAU peers in relation to both faculty and student research opportunities and productivity. We also received many concerns regarding a level of graduate student support that often was not competitive with our peers, including both the number of graduate teaching/research assistantships allocated and the amount of the stipends provided.

Progress and plans:

  • While some noted the value of the General Research Fund, there were concerns with the structure of the program. Given limited internal resources, the College has initiated an external fundraising campaign to develop a research fund that will support key priorities in our strategic planning. We have identified about $200,000 in support to start the program, and the first call will come later this spring. The program also will include a focus on the involvement of students in research.
  • Additional research support was mentioned as a need for associate professors on their path to being promoted to full professor. Strategies are now underway to provide this type of support going forward, including those that support additional protected time for faculty research activities.
  • The College Office of Graduate Affairs has been instrumental in our initial efforts to support graduate student grant writing. We have considerable work to do to build a culture that supports these efforts but there are many faculty and student models that we can build from. We are moving to find resources to provide student time to prepare applications in the context of all their other responsibilities (e.g., Dean’s Doctoral Fellowship).
  • We continue to have significant conversations regarding graduate student support and our struggles in this domain. This is a significant issue without clear answers given the current budget situation. We understand the importance of working with campus partners and providing clear direction about our path forward and the identification of strategies to better support graduate training.

#4 Allocation of resources

There was significant polarization regarding accountability and how the College prioritizes resources to units. Some felt the College was not prioritizing successful units, while others felt the College was not supporting units that were important contributors to the mission of the College, but falling behind in student credit hours (SCH) and other objective indicators.

Progress and plans:

  • Over the next few years our budget issues will require considerable thought about the impact of being spread thin, which makes our strategic planning process all the more essential. It will be incumbent on the College to identify strategies to build on strengths without undermining struggling areas that play a vital role in our identity and mission. This is particularly important given that our ability to search for new hires has been cut nearly in half over the past few years.
  • We will also continue to investigate and promote entrepreneurial and innovative strategies, such as the development and expansion of online courses and Winter Session classes that can support our budget but also provide opportunities to students in a manner that fits with our expected rigor and mission. Our first Winter Session, for example, provides a model of innovation and opportunity (e.g., over one-third of students taking these courses came from KU’s professional schools). We look forward to working with units and faculty members to expand this opportunity and explore others.
  • Additionally, efforts by the College to retain faculty have been somewhat successful in limiting attrition at a time when we are clearly at risk from poaching by our peers. At the same time, retention can cause inequities. We have worked with chairs in this last period of raises to address areas of inequity, but we do understand the impact these otherwise positive efforts can have, and we will continue to consider how best to ensure retention and fairness.

#5 Professional development for staff

There was a sense that the College could invest more in our staff and ensure they feel welcome and appreciated.

Progress and plans:

  • The College hosted a staff town hall in the fall to explore this theme. We are considering and actively working toward multiple strategies, many of which were brought forward at that event.
  • The College is working with the provost’s office to identify opportunities to enhance staff development and will be working with supervisors throughout the College to provide flexibility to staff to ensure they are able to take advantage of these opportunities when available.
  • We are identifying staff-specific awards to recognize the excellence and contributions of College staff.
  • The College will be working with several staff members to identify and host events to acknowledge staff for their contributions, as well as provide opportunities to support staff wellness and across-unit staff collaborations to combat the feeling of working in silos.

#6 Facilities needs

There have been several positive developments in facilities, including the renovation of Summerfield Hall for the Department of Film & Media Studies and the construction of the Earth, Energy & Environment Center and the Integrated Science Building. However, it also is clear that we have many other facilities that are simply substandard in terms of our research and teaching needs. Given the budget situation, new renovations and construction are challenging, however, we are doing what we can to ensure the urgency of this work is clear at the campus level. Further, it is imperative that the College uses the next few months to work with faculty and staff to develop a plan for the next round of capital improvements and communicates very clearly the details of these efforts. Moreover, this must include faculty and staff input from the start. I am eager to work with our associate deans to ensure your voice is heard, a clear plan is in place in the near future, and that our plan remains transparent with any possible changes brought forward for feedback.  

#7 Student success

Student success remains a challenging issue in the College. Our retention rates are below our goals at the campus and College levels. There is recognition that the College is making efforts to support students who are struggling, but at the same time, some faculty are skeptical of retention efforts that they believe will lower our standards and rigor. Some of the feedback we received also focused on the need to provide more hands-on experiences for students.

Progress and plans:

  • The faculty mentoring program was viewed by many as a positive for our struggling students, but there were a few individuals who were concerned about the premise and quality of the program. Some liked the addition of up to $200 per year for travel funds to support mentors and to address our extremely low travel stipends. What is most significant about this project is that we are developing a more intentional, student-centered, faculty-advisor team approach to student success that we are considering as a guide for improving retention and student outcomes. In terms of execution some concerns were voiced, such as difficulty connecting with students who may be less motivated and the feeling of being unprepared for some student issues including financial and mental health concerns. Toward this end, Student Academic Services has worked to expand the program to “catch” students earlier in their struggles, to provide targeted workshops to faculty on challenging student issues, and to utilize more data in how we are matching students with their mentor. Our most recent iteration of the program is showing several gains in these areas.
  • We are working closely with the vice provost for undergraduate studies, interim vice provost of academic affairs, and acting vice provost for diversity and equity to identify creative approaches to address the challenges of student success including issues related to academic advising.
  • The Student Success Team – made up of our associate dean for academic innovation and student success, and leaders of Student Academic Services and the College Office of Graduate Affairs – has been working on proposals to increase the scope and quality of undergraduate advising to College units and to further expand the successful professional graduate advisor program at the graduate level.
  • We are in the early stages of efforts to build mentoring and internship opportunities, as well as career-related programming for students, all of which is guided by close consultation with the KU Alumni Association, the KU Career Center, the Dean’s Alumni Advisory Board, and the Dean’s Student Advisory Council.

#8 Shared Service Center

Several issues were raised that are not specifically under the purview of the dean’s office. At the same time, these issues have a clear impact on the College, and we can play a lead role in resolving these issues at the campus level. Multiple aspects of the Shared Service Center (SSC) are of concern based on the feedback shared.

Progress and plans:

  • Many individuals requested that the SSC be rolled back and staff be placed back in their units. Yet, individuals who reported being in smaller units often indicated an improvement in services available to them with the SSC. This is an issue that does not have a simple and quick solution. The SSC staff and directors are working tirelessly to address problems and identify which issues are growing pains as opposed to those that are a function of the current system and unlikely to improve without direct intervention. KU is committed to making the SSC model work and our partners in the centers are hard at work making helpful adjustments to the current system. As one example, the SSC is considering strategies that will provide a closer connection between centralized staff and units to recreate the human element that was evident in the previous service approach based in individual units.
  • Older and less powerful software programs that have created many of the issues will be replaced with higher quality versions this summer and should have significant impact on key services including travel reimbursement.
  • Continued collaboration among units, the SSC and our office are necessary to continue to identify challenges and consider options. No one involved is comfortable and satisfied with our current status, given the levels of concern expressed here and elsewhere.
  • It is also notable that several respondents also had concerns about how the individuals in the SSC were treated by those who were frustrated with this service model. Demonstrated respect for others is a necessary aspect of a well-functioning and healthy workplace. An emphasis on the development of protocols and practices that guide relationships between the SSC, units and faculty members are important to consider as we move forward with our staff in the SSC and attempt to solve the problems while continuing to support each other in the College.

#9: KU Core

There was a strong desire for a thorough evaluation of the KU Core. Many respondents indicated that the KU Core has addressed many issues that were evident prior to its implementation. At the same time, respondents noted that the KU Core has reduced the number of required courses in the College, and are concerned about the impact this is having on SCH production as well as the preparation our students are receiving in the liberal arts. Others voiced concerns about the level of paperwork and overall requirements related to getting courses into the KU Core and keeping them there.  

Progress and plans:

  • We are working with the UCCC and the vice provost of undergraduate studies on these issues and concerns. UCCC members visited with College’s Committee on Undergraduate Studies & Advising (CUSA) earlier this year to begin part of this dialogue. As noted above in #1, we will be continuing to work very closely with the vice provost for undergraduate studies to support the role of the liberal arts and sciences within the KU Core.

#10: Concealed carry

Many of the respondents voiced concern about the impending end of the exemption that prevented the allowance of concealed carry on our campus, as mandated by state law. There were several comments that indicated desire for a more critical voice against concealed carry from the administration, more deliberate notice to our community and those considering coming to KU, and greater attention to making KU as safe as possible when the exemption expires. I understand your frustration and concerns. I also want to be clear on what I see as my foremost responsibility, which is to ensure that our campus and College are as well-prepared as possible in terms of safety precautions and considerations when this law takes effect. I have focused this year on advocating for safety measures based on feedback from across the College.

Progress and plans:

  • We have held multiple sessions with chairs and directors to gather concerns and ensure we are impacting the policies and procedures related to the implementation of concealed carry on campus. We’ve also provided chairs and directors with information and resources to support their units. The College is working with a task force charged to identify facilities that should be exempted from concealed carry. We are considering how we could create and fund restricted access at these locations that would allow high-risk facilities to be exempt from concealed carry.
  • We are working with the provost’s office to participate in a committee that will identify concerns from members of our community about additional steps the College can take to provide guidance and support that can supplement the existing body of resources provided by the provost’s office on the KU concealed carry website.
  • Over the past few months, we have added a link on the College homepage directing visitors to KU safety resources, including the concealed carry policy. We understand the concern that these efforts should have come sooner but we believe we are currently doing what we can to make KU as safe as possible given the factors we cannot control.