How to cultivate a positive faculty culture at your higher ed institution

April 5, 2024 Watermark Insights

7 roadblocks to faculty engagement

How to cultivate a positive faculty culture at your higher ed institution

You’ve already heard that with great power comes great responsibility. Whether it is through shaping minds, breaking ground with new research, or shifting cultural conversations, higher education institutions hold a lot of power. To rise to the occasion, many colleges and universities are asking harder questions of themselves — especially around faculty experience. 

Where could you be going wrong? Explore these roadblocks to faculty engagement and learn what steps your institution can take to create a faculty culture where everyone can thrive. 

1. Homogeneity

As of fall 2021, 76 percent of full-time professors were White. Faculty diversity and student success go hand in hand — when students of color see their own identities represented among the faculty, they are more likely to enroll in an institution, and both students of color and White students have better academic outcomes when taught by diverse faculty.

Seeking out a variety of perspectives also improves the quality of decision-making — a reality that businesses are seeing reflected in their bottom line. In a 2023 report that drew data from 1,265 companies across 23 countries and six global regions, McKinsey & Company found that companies in the top quartile of either ethnic representation or gender diversity had a 39 percent increased likelihood of financial outperformance compared to their peers in the bottom quartile.

2. Opacity

A healthy culture is founded on transparency and accountability. However, people must feel safe to admit and call out mistakes — and this safety should be demonstrated consistently across an institution, in ways big and small. Tenure is one protection given to faculty to challenge mainstream ideas, but it isn’t the only way. Conducting routine anonymous surveys and town hall-style meetings can also help establish a culture of transparency. 

In The Power of Habit, journalist Charles Duhigg highlights the case of a hospital that embodies the disastrous alternative: Without intentional practices to promote open communication, Rhode Island Hospital nurses fell into the habit of dodging the wrath of certain hot-tempered doctors by not overtly correcting them. Big egos were tolerated and managed rather than reformed, resulting in devastating, preventable errors, including multiple wrong-site surgeries. 

3. Inefficiency

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” This often-quoted line from American author Annie Dillard may sound obvious, but its implications are profound. As mentioned above, small daily habits can have far-reaching effects.

In higher education institutions, the impact of small daily habits on faculty productivity cannot be overstated. Consistent practices such as effective time management, regular communication with students, and setting achievable goals contribute significantly to long-term success. These habits cultivate a culture of efficiency and excellence, ultimately enhancing teaching quality, research output, and overall institutional reputation.

Software solutions that eliminate repetitive data entry save faculty from hours of tedious work, freeing them up to spend their time doing more enriching activities like mentoring students or diving deep on research. 

4. Hierarchy

Suri Duitch, writing for Inside Higher Ed in the article “Higher Education Should Model Better Workplace Cultures,” says: “Long-standing hierarchies within institutions (faculty over staff, tenure track over nontenurable) privilege certain voices and, as a result, often silence members of minority groups.” A culture that demands adherence to an inflexible hierarchy risks doing so at the expense of inclusivity and insight. Instead, institutions ought to aspire to systems of shared governance, which encourage flexibility, collaboration, and empowerment.

Shared governance empowers stakeholders in higher education institutions by fostering collaboration and inclusivity in decision-making processes. By involving faculty, staff, and students in key discussions and policy formulation, shared governance ensures diverse perspectives are considered, leading to more informed and equitable outcomes. This approach promotes transparency, trust, and accountability, strengthening the institution's sense of community and commitment to its mission.

5. Complacency

Lifting up your people also means supporting their progress. Too many institutions make the mistake of treating ongoing faculty development as an afterthought rather than a priority. The right technology can help you easily highlight faculty achievements, better quantify credentials, and run more streamlined, informed review cycles that create a roadmap for growth.

Institutions can also improve faculty morale by streamlining many of their routine tasks. For example, faculty are asked to report on their activities several instances a year — 8 to 12 times annually, on average. This is tedious and frustrating for your faculty, especially when they could be replacing traditional systems with a central hub for faculty activity data that delivers deeper insights into faculty contributions while supporting their career growth. 

6. Superficiality

Cultivating a culture you can be proud of requires regular reflection — but make sure you're looking at more than just appearances. Colleges or universities that want to make a big impact on their communities will need to dig deep to get a better understanding of their priorities. This kind of institutional soul-searching should be the first step in establishing a defined mission and set of values. These can serve as your institution’s “north star,” guiding its decisions, routines, and goals, and guaranteeing behavior that is organized around its most cherished ideals. 

Feedback from course evaluations and surveys offers invaluable insights for college and university faculty to reflect on their pedagogy. By analyzing student responses, faculty can identify strengths and areas for improvement in their teaching methods, curriculum design, and overall instructional approach, ultimately enhancing the learning experience for students.

7. Inconsistency

Rather than relying on one or two events a year to direct people’s behaviors, find innovative ways to nurture this culture all year long. Colleges and universities can pursue continuous improvement year-round by implementing regular assessment mechanisms, fostering a culture of feedback and innovation, and actively seeking opportunities for professional development and institutional enhancement.

Just as The University of Alabama College of Education Assessment Team has said of their own process for bringing a new culture into being, “It's not a one-time event. It will not be brainstormed, created, and implemented in one meeting or even over the course of just a semester.” Instead, it’s a practice in consistency over time — a commitment to evolution that never stops. 

Is your institution a place people want to be?

Fostering a positive faculty culture demands a multifaceted approach. Colleges and universities should be prepared to dig deeper with faculty engagement as well as with their commitments to diversity, transparency, efficiency, and continuous improvement. By embracing shared governance, encouraging feedback, and striving for consistency, institutions can cultivate an environment where faculty thrive, ultimately benefiting students and the entire educational community. Learn how to do this with Watermark.



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