Jeff Loats talks academic realignment
Chair explains the mission and work of the Academic Excellence and Student Success Advisory Council.
February 26, 2018
Jeff Loats, co-chair of the President’s Advisory Council on Academic Excellence and Student Success, recently took time to answer a few questions about possible academic realignment at MSU Denver with the Early Bird.
How did this Advisory Council get formed, and what is it working on?
President Janine Davidson spent her first several months at MSU Denver visiting various places, groups and events on campus and talking with people about all the successes and challenges that exist here. Her leadership team took all that feedback and knowledge and decided to create six Advisory Councils, grouping together similar issues, ideas and discussions under each one. The president asked me to co-chair the President’s Advisory Council on Academic Excellence & Student Success with Angela Marquez, associate to the president for HSI, as the co-chair.
President Davidson told us that repeatedly—from both inside and outside MSU Denver—she heard that there are opportunities and problems having to do with the way our departments are arranged. This led to the first “focus issue” that will exclusively occupy the efforts of this Advisory Council, at least for now.
“Should the academic departments be re-aligned to better level the loads and best reflect and market our mission? If so, how?”
The core of the president’s request is that this Advisory Council work hard to cooperatively develop the problems that we, as a community, want to solve. Then, if those problems become clear, we will work on recommended solutions and advise the president on the strengths, weaknesses and details of each option.
Is the Advisory Council going to be cutting jobs or departments?
In my personal searches online, universities almost always undergo academic realignments (or reorganizations) in response to a fiscal crisis, but that is not what is happening here.
We have an unusual opportunity to look at the organization of our institution without the demand to make cuts and “find efficiency” in the way we operate. Specifically, we will be starting the discussion from a revenue-neutral standpoint. In other words, we will start by looking at solutions that don’t change the overall operating costs of the University. However, it is also possible that in studying the options we might end up advising the president to consider investing in some aspect of the University. If we have evidence that this will pay off in the future (in terms of increased enrollments, more effective fundraising, etc.), then we should make those arguments. At the risk of over-repeating, we will seek revenue-neutral outcomes, unless we have powerful evidence that suggests a better course.
This means we, as an Advisory Council, are not looking for departments to eliminate, programs that are “unproductive” or expenses that need to be trimmed.
From what I can see in the world of higher education, we are in a lucky position to be undertaking this work apart from a serious fiscal crisis.
What possible outcomes have been put on the table so far?
There is one message that President Davidson has repeated each time I’ve seen her discuss the Advisory Councils. Paraphrased slightly, she has said that “if you have one hour to come up with a solution, spend 50 minutes first understanding the problem.”
So the straight answer is “none.” No specific proposals have been laid out or discussed by any part of this Advisory Council. No one has handed us what they think the right answer is, and I don’t want them to.
In my work on this so far, I’ve become more aware of the history of “academic reorganizations” at MSU Denver. Significant work was done around this in 2008-09 (that report is available online), and I believe that a large effort was undertaken around 2002, though with only minimal results. (This was before my time at MSU Denver.)
My impression is that there were a lot of wounds inflicted during that process 15 years ago, and as I have talked with people from around campus I can occasionally sense what I think are old bruises and scars from that time. Institutional memories run long and deep, especially at mission-driven organizations like ours. Those memories may still hold a sense of trauma around these conversations, which we can’t ignore.
In the current moment, my guess is that many people on campus have heard about the “academic reorganization” work that this Advisory Council is doing in a second- or third-hand manner. I also suspect that sometimes the discussions focus, understandably, around “here is what we will be changing” rather than “here are the kinds of issues we are trying to uncover.” I hope that this Q&A with the Early Bird will help to focus the conversation, allow some fearful reactions to be released and to bring many diverse perspectives into the conversation.
If we are interested in having our future be different than our past, I truly feel that we need to put forth trust in our new president, trust in our ability to carry forward a shared-governance effort and trust in each other that we all care deeply about both higher education and MSU Denver.
What has the Advisory Council done so far, and what kind of schedule are you following?
The full President’s Advisory Council on Academic Excellence & Student Success has met twice, with more than 60 people present at the kickoff meeting and more than 40 at the second full council meeting. The Steering Committee has also met twice. Members of the Steering Committee have visited the Council of Chairs & Directors, Faculty Senate and twice reported at the President’s Cabinet meeting. We have sent a detailed survey to all chairs and directors, and recently worked with the full council to consider what kinds of information, opinions and feelings we should seek to get from faculty, staff, students, administration and the community.
We have a SharePoint website for the Council members, plus a website accessible by anyone at MSU Denver. We are trying to put everything we do right out in the open. The Full Council meetings are open to everyone.
What happens next for the President’s Advisory Council on Academic Excellence and Student Success?
In the coming weeks, the Steering Committee will split up into pairs to meet with each of the deans, seeking their detailed knowledge and broad perspective on the MSU Denver’s academic structure.
Starting at the kickoff meeting on Jan. 25, we have been working with a three-week repeating cycle:
- Week 1 – Full council meets
- Week 2 – Steering Committee meets
- Week 3 – Research and work
Here’s a list of the next meetings:
- Full council meeting: 10-11:30 a.m., March 5 at SSB 420 (CAVEA)
- Steering Committee Meeting, 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.
We hope to take the results of the survey sent to chairs and directors, plus the work of the 40 people at the last Advisory Council meeting and bring it to the survey experts at MSU Denver to create survey(s) that will attempt to reach all MSU Denver cohorts—faculty, staff, students, administration and the community. Each of these surveys will also offer a chance to opt-in to future face-to-face discussions.
It is my sincere hope that everyone who cares about this will come together, think about how we can best support our students in their journey, and then put our heads together around MSU Denver’s academic organization.
Information, calendars, details and documents are all available to everyone at MSU Denver using the CAESS SharePoint website.