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ACM Voices-Winter 2014

ACM Notes-Winter 2014

In the Winter 2014 issue of ACM Notes

FaCEing the Future Together

Guest columnist: Christopher Welna, ACM President

Christopher Welna

Christopher Welna

When I speak with faculty members these days, at residential liberal arts colleges in the ACM as well as at our region's research universities in the "Big Ten," I often hear expressions of concern and anxiety.

I shouldn't be surprised, of course. After all, unsettling events and trends confront us today in higher education. These include the straight line being drawn in public discussions between the cost of a degree and a graduate's expected lifetime earnings, the shrinking percentage of tenure and tenure track faculty, decreasing federal and state support for education, and the increasing cost of college. They also include the declining number of college age students and the fact that they come to the colleges from a world quite different from the world in which most faculty members grew up — communicating through social media, for example, and enjoying easy access to information. The concerns include new calls for assessment and for customizing just about everything, as well as the sudden spread of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and other online modes of teaching. What will these mean for the role of the professoriate, and for the future of small, residential, liberal arts colleges?

[This project] will help faculty assure that their colleges can engage with challenges in ways that enhance rather than diminish the distinctive liberal arts mission of ACM colleges.

Doom and gloom about the future won't get anyone very far, however. How does a faculty member — or a college for that matter — get ready for the future? In particular, how can individual faculty members develop their teaching and research interests in ways that help their colleges move successfully into the future — especially given the multiple challenges facing colleges and faculty today?

Tapping the considerable creativity and knowledge embodied in the faculty at ACM institutions is one path going forward. Another is pooling efforts to share both risks and learning gains from experimentation, especially across departments, colleges and sectors.

A generous new award from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation will support ACM faculty as they proactively, and collaboratively, engage the issues we face. A $2 million grant for 6 1/2 years will underwrite a series of conferences and faculty-designed initiatives to address these challenges. This project builds on the Institute for College Futures, which the Foundation is supporting, as well as a previous phase of the Faculty Career Enhancement (FaCE) program, which concluded a year ago after funding nearly 50 collaborative projects aimed at innovation through faculty teaching and research.

Why is this award significant?

This project will help faculty transform concerns into investigations that pave the way to innovation. It will enable faculty to engage with innovations in fields like cognitive science and findings in brain research to shape curricula for the 21st century. It will allow faculty to work collaboratively with each other to use new technologies to focus on student learning. It will help faculty assure that their colleges can engage with challenges in ways that enhance rather than diminish the distinctive liberal arts mission of ACM colleges.

The elements of FaCE also embody several priorities that have emerged in the discussions for ACM's next strategic plan, a draft of which will be discussed by the Board of Directors in April and thereafter on the campuses.

A key recommendation from the strategic planning task forces is to help the colleges continue expanding their joint consortial portfolio of faculty development opportunities, as this project will do. Related to this, the task forces also recommended that the colleges use the consortium to experiment with and learn collectively about digital resources for teaching, to minimize the risks and costs by sharing efforts and learning. In addition, they recommended that the colleges foster learning across the campuses by hiring a consortial instructional technologist "circuit rider" to broker peer-to-peer learning. Yet another recommendation is to help faculty engage with the key issues facing our profession and liberal arts institutions, through innovations in the realms where they are most active and know best — teaching and research activities. The new FaCE project embodies each of these recommended goals.

For collaboration and innovation to have their greatest impact, sustainability needs to be baked into the activities from the very beginning. This project is designed to create an ongoing mechanism for the colleges to continue funding high-priority collaborations by faculty beyond the life of the grant by creating a modest fund for this purpose.

Leadership will matter. We're currently searching to fill the position on the ACM staff that will lead the portfolio of faculty development and grant projects. As you may know, Elizabeth Ciner and David Schodt played key roles in designing the new FaCE project in their capacity as the joint leaders of this portfolio since July 2012, and they plan to retire this coming July.

The new director of faculty development will have the opportunity to listen to your concerns and work closely with faculty across the consortium to shape the future of our colleges at a time when costs, demographics, technology, and cognitive science all clamor for changes in higher education.

I look forward to hearing your ideas about how to take on the issues that concern you and your college — and to seeing the new FaCE project fund the most compelling of these ideas in coming years.

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This column was written for the Winter 2014 issue of the ACM Notes newsletter for faculty and administrators.

Copyright 2014