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Provost's Update - November 2017

Dear deans, vice provosts and academic vice presidents:

During the last month, I have had the opportunity to visit with the Faculty Senate, academic department heads, deans, vice provosts, academic vice presidents and several institute directors. The purpose of these meetings was to learn more about the respective organizational areas that report to the Provost’s Office and to identify specific concerns and questions relating to current university-wide initiatives and issues specific to individual units and programs. While I recognize that there is still much work to be done to fully implement the new initiatives under development, I am pleased to confirm that all leaders with whom I met expressed strong support for the direction Virginia Tech is taking.

Before providing an update on the progress achieved in implementing these specific programs and initiatives, let me first remind you that they all arise from the vision of Beyond Boundaries. If you have not reviewed the envisioning report recently, please see: Envisioning Virginia Tech Beyond Boundaries. I encourage you to do so, as it lays out the framework (the “Why?”) in support of destination/strategic growth areas, the PIBB model, increased emphasis being placed on scholarly excellence in promotion and tenure, global reach, experiential learning, research competitiveness, and development of programs and partnerships in the NCR and Roanoke. This vision is anchored in our ongoing commitment to the tripartite land-grant mission involving teaching, research and engagement/service, and to the necessity of providing both a liberal as well as practical education. This Beyond Boundaries vision is well captured in the “Future Directions” listed in the report, summarized as follows:

  • Advance academic excellence to become a top 100 global university.
  • Foster VT-shaped people with disciplinary depth and interdisciplinary capacities.
  • Offer flexible and personalized degrees.
  • Become a problem-situated, distributed institution that engages diverse partners in Roanoke, NCR and beyond.
  • Integrate the tripartite land-grant mission to advance experiential learning
  • Cultivate global citizens well suited to serving diverse communities
  • Grow infrastructure with a networked and nimble approach
  • Develop new and varied funding models less reliant on state appropriations and less burdensome on students

In regard to the various initiatives under development and issues that have been the source of concern expressed by faculty, I am providing the following updates. My purpose here is to share my assessment of progress accomplished and also to propose several actions for your consideration and input. The topic areas are organized around input provided by the Council of College Deans and issues raised during my recent meetings with you.

As indicated above, the current initiatives (DAs/SGAs, PIBB etc.) all arise from the framework of Beyond Boundaries. It is clear that we need to articulate better the rationale and compelling justification for advancing these initiatives. This effort is being led by President Sands, who will continue to build on his recent State of the University address to communicate the relevance of the initiatives to the Beyond Boundaries vision. A letter from President Sands announcing the transition of Beyond Boundaries from visioning to planning and implementation is being drafted and will serve as a platform for a variety of additional communications, several of which will be published on the VT web site, along with talking points that may be used in a range of settings.

Submit a comment or share an idea about communications.

To address the criticisms that the processes and/or parameters involved in the DAs/SGAs, PIBB, and cross-cutting committees are unnecessarily complicated, I am in the process of identifying opportunities for simplification. Included among these are proposals to discontinue the VT-Shaped Learning Committee and reform the Research Strategies Committee. We are also in the process of reexamining the PIBB model parameters, and thinking about how further development of the DAs/SGAs may be streamlined.

Submit a comment or share an idea about complexity of initiatives.

In my recent meeting with the Faculty Senate, I reminded faculty that Virginia Tech has good reason to recognize and celebrate its scholarly accomplishments, but that to compete with our peers, particularly aspirational peers, we must continue to build on this foundation. Enhancing the impact of our scholarship will involve a range of strategies, only one of which involves standards of performance expected for promotion and tenure. Considering that promotion and tenure cannot be the sole mechanism whereby scholarship is enhanced, any changes to performance expectations should be phased in to provide time for these to be reflected in the processes for annual evaluation and reappointment at the departmental and college levels. Furthermore, I believe that substantive changes to the P&T process must follow approval of revisions to the relevant policies contained in the Faculty Handbook. In this regard, the Commission on Faculty Affairs has appointed a working group to review and, as necessary, draft revisions to the policies. Recognizing that any revisions are unlikely to be approved before completing the current P&T review cycle, we need to abide by the current policies and allow individual cases to proceed through to conclusion of the review process.

One area of concern that may require special attention involves the possibility of discrepancies between documented, formal performance expectations communicated at the departmental/college level and those of the university committee. Should such a concern arise, we will consider dealing with these circumstances via an existing stipulation in the Faculty Handbook (section relating to clock extensions.

Moving forward, I do support efforts to have departments or colleges clearly identify criteria whereby faculty are evaluated as well as measures of success relative to competitive and aspirational peers. These measures should be appropriate to the discipline and, if available and appropriate, should include both qualitative and quantitative outcomes.

Submit a comment or share an idea about promotion and tenure.

As mentioned above, I am proposing that the VT-Shaped Learning Committee be discontinued in favor of an alternative approach. Building off an update recently prepared for President Sands by the Beyond Boundaries Experiential Learning Committee, a plan has been formulated to establish an Office of Experiential Learning (OEL) to advocate, coordinate, and incentivize experiential learning opportunities across campus. The OEL will be housed within Undergraduate Academic Affairs, consistent with the Beyond Boundaries vision in which “experiential learning wrapped around an issue, problem, or topic of the community will become the core of the educational experience, with the traditional course instruction supporting that work.” To realize this goal, we must recognize the substantive role of extracurricular experiences, such as those that occur in living-learning communities. To ensure that we intentionally connect curricular with extracurricular programs and identify meaningful experiential learning outcomes that can be assessed to guide program development, I will ask Undergraduate Academic Affairs, Student Affairs, and other relevant units to collaborate closely to ensure that the OEL promotes a well-coordinated approach.

Submit a comment or share an idea about experiential learning.

Virginia Tech’s financial position is strong.  However, as explained in the Beyond Boundaries envisioning report, to remain strong for a longer term, the university needs to diversify its income sources to become less reliant on state appropriations and tuition revenue. Without doing so, it will not be able to achieve the goal of becoming a top 100 global university, nor will it be able to meet its land-grant mission of providing an accessible and high-quality education. While the university has been adequately served by an incremental budgetary model in the past, this approach will not meet expectations in the future because we need to incentivize growth in income from extramural grants/contracts, private gifts, and service fees to support delivery of a high-quality liberal education while at the same time invest in strategically relevant programs that distinguish us globally.

To meet this need, the PIBB model is being structured to provide an outcomes data-informed approach to budget allocation, one that incentivizes desired outcomes that are negotiated with academic colleges. Specifically, annual budget allocations are determined in large part by success in achieving outcomes related to: student enrollment (SCH and headcount); extramural grants, contracts and fees; private donations; and student and faculty success factors. To date, much progress has been achieved in developing the part of the model that relates to student enrollment, extramural grants/contracts/fees, and private donations. Even so, we still have much work to accomplish before student and faculty success factors can be incorporated fully into the model because we do not yet have reliable data systems capable of tracking relevant outcomes such as faculty scholarship. It is also apparent that further consideration must be given to the incentives associated with student enrollment because, unless we structure these to promote growth in strategically relevant areas and in a manner that optimizes desired student profiles across undergraduate, graduate and professional degrees, we run the risk of achieving little more than increasing the size of the university. Too, if most of the incremental income derived from enrollment growth is consumed by expansion of resources to accommodate more students (including personnel, space, residential facilities etc.), there will be little remaining for program development and quality improvements.

I anticipate that, during the next few months, we will be able to make necessary adjustments in parameters relating to student enrollment, extramural grants/contracts/fees, and private donation outcomes, and that we will be ready to implement a PIBB for colleges that includes these components (accounting for approximately 70% of total allocation) in FY19. I believe that we will also be able to incorporate several student and faculty success factors in the model, but it is uncertain at this time whether these components will be ready for implementation in FY19. Considering that the model will be inherently imbalanced until we incorporate all of the faculty and student success factors and, in anticipation of challenges associated with an incompletely tested approach, the Provost’s Office will announce a call for college and VP area critical needs requests in December. These requests will be reviewed in conjunction with projected PIBB allocations to ensure that we make progress in incentivizing programs while also avoiding potentially disruptive budgetary decisions that fail to address urgent needs.

Finally, I acknowledge that there is concern that the PIBB model as ultimately envisioned may be too complicated. We will of course look for ways to simplify the model, but, in so doing, we need to be careful not to detract from its ability to incentivize behaviors that are strategically important and reflect the diversity of outcomes appropriate for a comprehensive university. For example, if we incentivize student enrollment without providing a premium associated with development of destination areas, we could support growth without necessarily advancing our global distinctiveness.

Submit a comment or share an idea about partnership for incentive-based budget.

I have not yet had time to visit with the various stakeholder committees and program managers so I anticipate that my assessments will become better informed as I learn more about progress achieved in each area. My general impression at this time is that development of the DAs is progressing well and that they represent existing and potential institutional strengths that will differentiate us from our peers, and be attractive to students, faculty and extramural sources of funding. Several cluster hires are in process and appear to be going well, although I suspect that we may need to review how we appropriately link departmental appointment of positions funded by the Provost’s Office with commitments made by colleges to allocate additional positions to destination areas.

The SGA’s will require more time for me to understand fully and determine if we have taken the right approach. A challenge associated with selection of areas of excellence, such as destination areas, is that they are inherently exclusive—many faculty are not well positioned to participate in these areas and the related investments made by the university. The SGAs can address the need for inclusivity by serving as incubators, as an opportunity for a wider population of faculty to engage in development of cross-cutting initiatives. However, to serve this function, we may wish to facilitate development of additional SGAs and be more flexible in their identification. In addition to the current SGAs, we could include other areas of cross-cutting interest that are developing within colleges, institutes, and existing DAs. I look forward to discussing your views on this matter.

Going forward, I propose that consideration be given to allocating a limited number of Provost Office-funded DA positions in FY19 (bringing the total number to approximately 70) and then pausing for a year or two before allocating more positions. The potential benefits of this approach would be to allow colleges to catch up with their hiring plans and assess progress made in developing the DAs and SGAs, and also to allow some facilities that will provide laboratory and teaching space for future DA hires, and those that are currently in design, to move through the construction phase. The ability of the Provost’s Office to fund new positions for a longer term is predicated on the expectation that funding for these positions starts transitioning to colleges after 3 years (10% per year until 70% is funded by the college) so a pause in allocation of new positions will enable the university to invest in other potentially high-impact programs that are not connected with the DA program, and in those that are in various stages of development. If we adopt this plan, the limited number of positions allocated in FY19 could be used to balance investments across DAs and possibly recruit several senior faculty in project areas that may need more leadership.

A pause would also provide an opportunity to review progress made in advancing diversity and inclusion, including our success in hiring underrepresented minorities. The Future Faculty Development Program and the Target of Talent Program are expected to facilitate these efforts, as are the procedures currently being employed to advertise our commitment to diversity in the cluster hire position announcements. To succeed in this endeavor, we will need to fill the faculty positions committed to the Target of Talent Program and also be successful in hiring underrepresented minorities into the Provost-funded and the college/department-funded DA positions.

Finally, as discussed during our recent Academic Affairs Council meeting, we should explore the possibility of aligning DAs with investment institutes. Several investment institutes have already facilitated development of DAs and serve as examples of the potential benefits of such a relationship. We should also explore the possibility of intentionally aligning DAs with selected IGEPs that may be well suited in terms of interdisciplinary overlap.

Submit a comment or share an idea about destination areas and strategic growth areas.

In conclusion, I wish for you to know how much I appreciate your support and encouragement, and how much I value your input and look forward to hearing your views in response to the updates provided in my message. In an effort to facilitate open communication and engagement, this webpage has been created to provide an opportunity for feedback on any of the aforementioned topics. I welcome your thoughts and ideas on these subjects via the link at the bottom of each dropdown section. I acknowledge the creativity and hard work committed by Dr. Rikakis in initiating many of our current projects and consider myself privileged to work with you to bring these ideas to fruition.