Strategic Directions Task Force Reports: An Evaluation

John E. Savage
Department of Computer Science

I prepared the following commentary on the Strategic Direction Task Force reports in response to an invitation by Provost Pomerantz to members of ACUP. The task forces, commissioned by President Gregorian and Provost Pomerantz in the fall of 1996, were asked to address issues that were identified in a Faculty/Administration/Corporation retreat held in August 1996. Task forces were formed on the following topics:

These reports are generally well done. Each task force took its mandate seriously and clearly devoted a great deal of time and effort responding to it. The reports contain many recommendations that deserve serious consideration.

However, the task forces failed to address adequately what I consider to be the starting point for strategic planning, namely, defining a role or roles for Brown University in the next century. Before restructuring the University and allocating resources we need to know what kind of university we want to become. Questions that I would have liked to see addressed explicitly are the following:

  1. What kind and level of education will Brown graduates need in the next century?
  2. Will graduate education be more or less important?
  3. Which areas of study will be in greatest demand?
  4. Should Brown play a role in the continuing education of postgraduates?
  5. Should Brown become more or less international?
  6. What human and physical resources will be needed to meet our objectives?

The first five questions are difficult to answer and perhaps not answerable by committees operating under a time limit, as the task forces were. While the answer to the sixth question should depend on responses to questions such as the first five, I am sure they were implicit in the work of the task forces. However, failure to tackle them head-on means that the task force recommendations are often limited to procedures for incremental change rather than proposing the large leaps that may be desirable.

A. The University/College

The University/College task force has set as a goal for Brown to "build a nationally prominent Graduate School, based on programs that are top-ranked in selected areas of specialization." The task force recognized that this will require a) either improvement in or readjustment of weaker graduate programs, b) increased funding for graduate education, and c) strengthening of the faculty. They formulate goals, plans, and procedures to implement their proposed actions.

I strongly support the general goal of this task force because I believe that graduate education is growing in importance as our societies become more global and technologically complex. While we need to identify the direct and indirect customers for graduate education, I believe they are students in the humanities and social sciences who are affected by or will influence globalization and those in the sciences and mathematics who will develop and use high technology. If this assessment is correct, then every academic unit desirous of expanding resources should offer convincing argument for their contributions to one or the other of these two themes. Units failing to make such a case would need to justify their units on the basis of their contributions to undergraduate education.

The University/College task-force has made many excellent recommendations, especially concerning strengthening of the faculty, assessment of programs, funding of graduate students, and administrative reorganization of small programs. However, I disagree with their implication that faculty quality is lower at Brown than it might otherwise be because of a high rate of internal promotions with tenure. The issue is standards, not rate of promotion, as has been evidenced in my department. Also, I find their proposal to remove positions from staffing plans whenever a departmental tenure recommendation is denied to be destabilizing. Decisions to reduce the size of a department should be made explicitly, not via the tenure review process.

I have reservations about the task force recommendation that 20 senior faculty members be hired over a five-year period. While good cases can be made for senior hires, such as to seed an area or replace a senior person around whom an activity has centered, I consider it much more desirable to hire at the junior level and promote from within. It is much harder for senior faculty members to assimilate than junior faculty members, and there is a greater risk that they will feel less loyalty to their department and institution than junior faculty who have been acculturated while young and impressionable. Great care must be exercised to hire well at the junior level, but the results can be excellent. Senior faculty should be hired only when one is certain they will benefit the department as a whole and not merely the department's reputation.

B. Liberal Education and the 21st-Century Brown Graduate

This report makes recommendations on liberal education, the curriculum, interdisciplinary programs, internships, advising, linking graduate and undegraduate students, technology, internationalization, diversity, pluralism, and life after Brown. Unfortunately, I was not impressed by this report. The title of their task force suggests that it should have dealt with the strategic questions posed above. However, their mandate was much more limited than is suggested by this title. In addition, the report failed to give adequate structure to their wide-ranging set of recommendations.

C. Academic Resources and Organization

The purpose of this task force was "to develop criteria and procedures that will keep Brown on 'the cutting edge' as a research and teaching institution, and to do so without substantially increasing the present instructional budget or numbers of students." This task force has made many excellent recommendations. Their recommendations to create flexibility in faculty slots, assess the infrastructure needs of the University, perform periodic external reviews of academic units, and change the salary incentive system to reward strong departments are very good. They also list three options for reorganizing the University. Of these I far prefer the creation of schools and the appointment of a layer of deans between the Provost and the chairs. Such a structure is traditional and well understood although it may be desirable to augment it by having the chairs in a school serve as an advisory committee to its dean.

Without considerable reflection I cannot endorse their recommendation for dividing each departmental FTE allotment into core and pool components with the latter positions to be justified whenever a vacancy occurs. I am concerned that such an arrangement could introduce instability into departments that might negatively impact faculty quality.

It is unfortunate that this task force's mandate specifically restricted their attention to growth by substitution because there is a possibility that funding for academic departments could be increased. While it appears that the percentage of the budget allocated to academic programs has remained about constant over the last forty years, this holds only because institutes and centers now included in this figure. Because faculty compensation for instruction as a percentage of the budget is about half today of what is was forty years ago, a fact brought out in my 1996 report to ACUP, I believe there is room for expansion in support for the faculty.

D. Information Resources and Support

This task force makes recommendations concerning tools, staff support for and policy concerning access to information, and the information resources themselves. While they consider the campus-based infrastructure for information access good, they would like to see such improvements as better high-speed networks both on and off campus, re-investment in the Library and Media Services to better support research and instruction, improved capabilities in non-Roman writing systems, and better coordination among agencies connected with technology for instruction. They also recommend that the University address the Year-2000 problem and develop and disseminate policies concerning copyrights.

Some of these questions are best addressed in the context of goals for Brown that are yet to be developed. I urge caution concerning investments in the Library, Media Services, and new technology. We should acquire only collections and equipment that are essential to our educational and research missions, remembering that while technology can be helpful in instruction, human nature has not changed significantly in more than 10,000 years. Otherwise, their recommendations appear sound to me.

E. Business Practices and Administrative Operations

This task force produced reports on outsourcing, space utilization and new programs, and changes in internal operations. The outsourcing report discussed the pros and cons of this topic and developed guidelines for evaluation of candidate areas for outsourcing.

The subcommittee studying space utilization and new programs described the master plan, reviewed the current priorities for renovation and expansion, described procedures to guide decisions on space utilization, and listed space needs identified by members of the Brown community. This subcommittee also considered the use of the campus during the summer, an issue that must be handled with care, especially since a study of this topic by Vice President Paul Maeder in the 1970s indicated that there was little to be gained by making extensive use of the campus during the summer. Finally, this subcommittee developed an informative list of possible new educational programs.

The subcommittee examining changes in internal operations has produced a very good list of steps that can be taken to reduce the costs and improve the efficiency of our operations. I particularly like their recommendations for multi-year budgeting and flexibility in filling faculty positions.

F. Mission Statement

In my opinion, this matter needs more work before its adoption by the Faculty and the Corporation. I prefer the following statement as a starting point for discussion:

The mission of Brown University is the education of undergraduate and graduate students, the discovery and transmission of knowledge, and the preparation of students "to discharge the offices of life with usefulness and reputation." It is expected that Brown students, faculty, and staff will adhere to high ethical and moral standards, be committed to excellence, and show respect for the rights of others.

Other Issues Any strategic plan for Brown University should address the low salaries of full professors. We cannot continue to rise in the ranks of leading universities with full- professor salaries that are the lowest in the Ivy League (Academe, March-April 1996).

It has been suggested in various task force reports that interdisciplinary faculty appointments are desirable. While it is true that an individual who holds appointments in several departments can add luster to them all, I think interdisciplinary appointments should be discouraged. Experience with the development of my department demonstrates that if deep loyalties can be developed to a department, synergy can result. I believe that joint appointments result in split loyalties that have the effect of reinforcing the individualism characteristic of academics. A small university such as Brown must rely on synergy among faculty colleagues if it is to thrive on relatively limited budgets.

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