Sometimes faculty development programs are inherited by an academic leader, and other times they have to be built. In either case the academic leader needs to heed some wisdom from the Chinese classic the Tao Te Ching. Development of faculty is a long journey wherever one starts; like a journey of 1,000 miles, it begins with the first step. Faculty development is also to be understood as a destination. Only if one has a clearly identified end for it will it achieve its desired destination—a highly effective and participatory faculty.

Faculty development program success begins with recruiting faculty to a specific institution’s mission during the recruitment and interview process. Bringing faculty into an institution who are not committed to its teaching, research, and service mission incentives and imperatives will lead to mismatches between faculty career aspirations and institutional resource commitments. Such mismatches undermine collegiality and undercut faculty development efforts. Hiring faculty who are overly focused on their discipline versus teaching and the school’s mission will lead to faculty dissatisfaction and turnover, with negative consequences for the classroom and within academic departments.

Beyond successful hiring, faculty programs will founder if they do not have a strong advocate at the highest level of academic administration. If the academic leader does not acquire and distribute resources consistent with the mission of the institution, wrong messages are sent. Faculty can become committed to one specific type of educational innovation. They can seek release time for their own career interests rather than the mutual interests of the institution and the faculty member. And they will come to view faculty development more as a competition for resources or an activity undervalued by the institution. Only strong academic administration leadership can provide the direction and energy necessary for a high-quality faculty development program. No faculty development director or coordinator, or even a faculty development resource office, can make up for the lack of a clear, constant, and resource-committed academic leader who visibly promotes and rewards effectively institutional mission-inspired faculty development.

A third key ingredient in faculty development success is choosing the right point person to be the daily spokesperson. Improper selection of the faculty development coordinator or director can sink any program. One needs to avoid the error of choosing the most innovative faculty member in the college or university. One should also not choose a faculty member well known for a particular kind of teaching, like case studies or computer simulations. The selection of the faculty development director or coordinator should be driven both by his or her commitment to all kinds of development and experimentation in teaching and research and by widespread colleague acceptance and confidence. Only a few faculty in any institution will meet both these criteria. Without both characteristics being present in the faculty development coordinator or director, the overall faculty development program and faculty participation in it will be limited to only highly motivated faculty or select faculty departments. It will never gain large-scale participation rates (over 75 percent). It will not reflect the necessary vitality to change and innovate as theories, methods, and research in higher education change regarding best practices.

A fourth element of a successful faculty development program involves the creation of a common basis for development efforts shared by the faculty as a whole. Although not widely accepted or understood by faculties in general, the work of L. Dee Fink can be very beneficial in creating that basis. His concepts articulated in Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses can provide a common basis for faculty across all disciplines. By creating courses through a learner-centered approach versus a subject-oriented approach, one opens up the faculty to innovation, experimentation, and good teaching practice sharing, which are all vital to a healthy faculty development program. His model of an integrated course design brings together four key elements—learning situational factors, learning goals, teaching and learning activities, and feedback and assessment—into a powerful combination through the idea of “backward course design.” This means the syllabus and course are designed from student learning objectives and not subject matter coverage.

If one has built these four elements into a faculty development program, then one needs to complement them with an anchoring and reinforcing faculty performance evaluation system. Tenure, promotion, and merit pay, where applicable, must identify faculty development as a key measurement for the evaluation and rewarding of faculty. A lack of consistency between academic leader messaging and promotion and tenure criteria used in any institution will doom any faculty development program to be engaged in primarily by true believers or innovative academic departments. It will not impact more than 25-40 percent of the teaching faculty, in my experience of promoting faculty development at nine different higher education institutions over 20 years. It will have very limited positive impact on teaching in the classroom, student retention, and institutional attractiveness and reputation.

Parker Palmer’s book Courage to Teach should be required reading along with Fink’s integrated course design. Palmer addresses clearly and convincingly the importance of individual faculty integrity to the teaching-learning process as being rooted in the integration of subject matter, student characteristics, and the faculty member’s core identity as an educator. All three of these aspects must be visible and practiced in a widely appealing and engaging faculty development program.

Faculty development must be viewed as a diffusion process. If the fundamentals for success are put into place and practiced consistently, then the faculty development program will be successful both in terms of institutional impact and faculty career satisfaction. Building that diffusion effort systematically requires certain identified practices. These practices include a program that covers annually the wide-ranging interests of faculty that include teaching best practices, research time releases, team-teaching opportunities, faculty seminars and luncheons to share experiences led by colleagues, and annual visits by outside leaders in innovation in higher education. Program mix is a crucial sustaining element of successful faculty development programs.

Diffusion also depends on the annual or semiannual required faculty development days tied to an institution’s mission. These days highlight current faculty creativity and innovation across all disciplines in the institution. They are an important time of bonding the institutional commitment to faculty development.

Finally, an effective and successful faculty development program depends on each individual department promoting disciplinary and teaching innovations relevant to their courses, students, and disciplines to reinforce the overall institutional program.

Faculty development programs can easily achieve 25-40 percent faculty involvement and participation. But only programs that are structured from recruitment to post-tenure review will deliver a comprehensive institutional mission benefit for all faculty and the students they serve.

Henry W. Smorynski, PhD is a Midland University leadership fellow.


Reprinted from Academic Leader, 31.7 (2015): 2, 5. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.