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Faculty Retreat Focuses on Building More Vibrant Academic Community

By Mike Unger

“This is for you.”

With those four words University Librarian Bill Mayer succinctly opened the 2010 Faculty Retreat at the beautiful Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay in Cambridge, Md.

Hundreds of faculty and staff attended this year’s event, “Building a More Vibrant Academic Community.”

“The goal is to bring together the faculty community to engage with key issues and topics facing our future development, to learn from one another’s work, and to find new bridges to collaboration,” said Mayer, co-chair of the planning committee. “All these serve, of course, to lay a foundation of engaged, connected faculty who exemplify the scholar-teacher ideal that is so fundamental to AU.”

President Neil Kerwin opened the two-day event by giving context to AU’s history and offering insights about its future.

“This is still a very young institution at least in terms of the institutions to which we consider ourselves comparable,” he said. 

“From the very outset the founding fathers of this university always focused heavily on the welfare of our students. We have always been a university that has taken the opportunity to do the right thing in terms of social justice.”

Kerwin described AU as being highly regarded externally and internally strong.

Still, the country’s changing demographics—he cited an impending decline in the 18-year-old population and an increase in the number of high school dropouts—will present challenges for a university that continues to be highly dependent on tuition for its revenue.

“We are surrounded by very good and high quality institutions,” he said. “While the population [of Washington] has grown dramatically, so has the competition for these students. The competition for students in the District of Columbia is [fierce] because the rest of the world understands what we do: this is one of the most robust markets for higher education.”

The strategic plan, Kerwin said, is a “living document” being implemented successfully across campus.

“At the center of it is you—the faculty,” he told the crowded ballroom. “It focuses on undergraduate and graduate programs and makes it plain that these are critical to the foundation of our university.”

Cultivating a close relationship with alumni and communicating the university’s achievements also are important components of the plan, Kerwin said.

In discussing the academic state of the university, Provost Scott Bass cited several positive statistics and said “our collective commitment must be to continue the vitality of this university.”

Bass reported that:

  • Freshman to sophomore retention after the freshman year has increased in the past four years.
  • The six-year graduation rate is on the rise and “moving in the right direction.”
  • The number of underrepresented minority population and percentage of Pell-eligible students has doubled since 2008.
  • The master’s population has gained nearly 300 students in the last four years.
  • From academic year 2008 to 2010 faculty requests for external monetary support have doubled.

And that was just the first session.

The rest of the weekend included activities from the compelling to the recreational. Caleen Sinnette Jennings, co-chair of the Department of Performing Arts, wrote a one-scene play, A Campus Recast, in which a goodbye party for a departing minority professor doesn’t go smoothly. Following the play, performed three times by professional actors alternating roles, faculty broke into smaller groups to discuss issues of diversity in their own departments.

“This was a really innovative way to begin a much-needed conversation about diversity at AU,” said SOC professor Lauren Feldman. “The turnout at the event was fantastic, and the sessions were very well-attended and fostered vibrant discussion. I think the retreat was especially useful this year as a way for faculty to talk through some of the changes resulting from the revisions to the faculty manual. Also, the venue was beautiful and helped create a conducive atmosphere for networking and discussion.”

Other sessions included talks by University System of Maryland chancellor William Kirwan and Jeff Kally, vice president, consulting, for TargetX. Yoga, golf lessons, and an evening social also were on the docket.

“We hoped to bring together faculty from across the university’s six schools to discuss common issues, share best practices, build collaborative relationships, and reinforce our sense of AU,” said College of Arts and Sciences dean Peter Starr, co-chair of the planning committee. “All the feedback we’ve received from faculty colleagues suggests that the retreat was a great success in this regard.”