Changing a Department’s Culture

Written by: Rob Kelly
Published On: May 30, 2012

The word came from the administration - turn your faculty into academics. It was a tall order. The relatively new department of occupational therapy at the University of the Sciences had a faculty that came primarily from clinical settings, not from academia. It fell to Paula Kramer, the department chair, to get her faculty involved in scholarship, an unfamiliar and daunting prospect for most of the faculty.

"The discipline is such that most people come from the clinic and go into teaching just because they're interested in it or because they're driven, or somebody has said they'd be good at it. It's not a natural progression, and we're not taught how to teach. We don't take the traditional [path] of, say, English or philosophy to learn how to be scholars," Kramer says.

Despite this lack of teaching preparation, the faculty were "natural teachers" who were "constantly trying to experiment with new types of teaching styles and new ways to get the material across." They were putting most of their energy into teaching and very little into service or scholarship.SRecruiting a Racially Diverse, Culturally Competent Faculty

In hindsight, Kramer feels that she came across as a bit "heavy handed" in trying to implement this administrative mandate. "I was telling them to do something outside their realm, and it was not comfortable for them. I wasn't giving them a way to progress, so I came across as pretty heavy-handed and pretty demanding. I had a strong record of scholarship, but I didn't think to give them the tools they needed to get there," Kramer says.

In addition, she needed to establish trust and "create a safe place where people could express their views without fear of retribution," Kramer says. "We had to respect each other or at least start from that point of treating people appropriately and with respect. I don't think that we weren't doing that, but I think it had to be stated that that was important."

She met with each faculty member individually and asked what they needed to get their scholarship on track. "What I heard from them was that they needed to learn how to do scholarship. They have never done it before. They all had fabulous ideas that they wanted to study but didn't know how to go about it. They all wanted a road map. Or somebody to work with them. Or something. All the ideas they had were fabulous. The moment I started to talk to them about this, my respect for them as future collaborators and scholars really grew tremendously," Kramer says.

In addition to scholarship, Kramer encouraged them to get involved in service to the college, which was another intimidating prospect. "There was a bit of fear that they wouldn't be respected since they didn't have traditional degrees. But at the same time, they were all more than willing," Kramer says. "I told them, 'You don't have to do everything. Pick one or two [activities] that suit your interests. Each one of them did, and the moment they got out of the insular world of the small department, they really blossomed because they shared their ideas and got a great amount of respect for the things they were already doing." For example, the department's involvement in service-learning generated a lot of interest.

The next step was getting the faculty to actually produce scholarship. Since none of the faculty members had experience in this area, Kramer suggested doing a group project. Kramer suggested submitting a paper to a journal about some recent curriculum changes that everybody had participated in as part of an accreditation review.Influential Leadership in Distance Education: Understanding the 9 Behaviors That Make a Difference

The entire department (six faculty members and Kramer) and the director of the teaching and learning center worked on the paper. Kramer assigned a piece of it to each person and set deadlines. They met every two weeks. Everybody had a partner to read his or her draft and make suggestions. Kramer offered to edit the entire paper. The others agreed but wanted to see it before it was submitted. (A turning point came in a subsequent project when the faculty said it was OK to submit the paper without having to see the final edited version.)

These changes were necessary to get faculty on the tenure track, and since implementation two faculty members have been tenured. "Nobody here wanted to set people up for failure, and everybody figured we had to build the department first before we put people on the tenure track. There was a lot of support from the university to let people grow and develop, which I think was very critical for us moving forward. It involved building consensus. Everybody needed to see a direction. They needed to be part of a project, whether it was one project for all of us or a project that they were interested in so that they would be invested in it," Kramer says.

In addition to working on projects that interest the faculty members, Kramer emphasizes aligning teaching and research as much as possible "so that they work smarter, not harder."

Kramer is a big promoter of the scholarship going on within her department. This helps establish connections with other scholars and creates possibilities for collaboration. In addition, she encourages faculty members to present their work at campus events.

Kramer has some flexibility in adjusting teaching loads to accommodate scholarship. She can't guarantee that requests for release time will be granted, but she makes every effort to make reasonable accommodations.Academic Leader Newsletter

Throughout this process Kramer changed as well. Chair evaluations from the faculty and her experience indicated that she needed to adopt a more collaborative leadership style. "What's most gratifying to me now is with working with tenured and tenure-track faculty as a group rather than hierarchically. I say, 'Look, this is going to be really important for us to do. How do you want to do it?' I think my style has completely changed. [The change] was partially deliberate and partially not. I knew it wasn't working, and I knew I needed to do something to make it work. The more I saw myself giving up control and giving support and promoting [the faculty], the more I saw how positive it was."

These changes within the department have paved the way for the creation of a doctoral program. Clinical doctoral programs are somewhat controversial. Opponents argue that these programs often lack the rigor or substance necessary to be called a doctorate. The provost argued successfully that a doctoral program would be an excellent way to distinguish the department from the others within its market.

"I think the article provided the catalyst for us to learn that we could trust each other and learn that we're going to be supportive in the endeavors [the faculty] want to undertake. I think that was the first step. I don't know that we would have been able to do the doctoral program in the same way. I'm very fortunate to have a group of very bright people who are very hard workers and very invested in the success of this department and their personal success. They've seen as these things progressed that they each get more and more attention from the university. They're viewed very differently now, and I think that's critically important," Kramer says.


This article originally appeared in the newsletter Academic Leader 27.7 (2011): 2, 3. The Academic Leader newsletter is read by academic decision makers and thought leaders on campuses nationwide and offers innovative strategies and fresh ideas to advance teaching, scholarship, and service.