November 2017

OpEd

New Faculty Increase Region’s Human Capital

Don O'Shea, president of New College of Florida

Universities exist both to create knowledge and to pass the knowledge won by previous generations to the rising generation. They exist for their students. And, in a very real sense, a university’s students and graduates embody that institution. They physically represent what that university produces. But a university’s faculty is the institution’s soul.

Students graduate. But it is not uncommon for faculty members to serve 30 or 40 years. Collectively, they determine the nature of an institution: how welcoming it is, how innovative, how rigorous and how outward-facing.

There are few jobs as interesting, or as all consuming, as full-time faculty positions at institutions that value teaching. The best faculty members love their disciplines and they love teaching. To love a discipline means to practice it, to advance knowledge in that discipline and to contribute to that discipline. That is a full-time job. To love to teach means to care about students, to be able to motivate and encourage each student and to adjust to the different ways in which each individual student learns. That, too, is a full-time job. A typical professor views holidays, when the university is not in session, as an opportunity to do research in labs, in the field or in archives.

Although faculty positions come with long hours, and the constant awareness -- often hard on personal lives -- that there is more that could be done, the competition for faculty positions is intense. And, yet, it is surprisingly difficult to hire first-rate faculty members. A look at the numbers reveals why. Each year the number of new Ph.D.s in the United States in core academic disciplines ranges from a little over 50 in fields like classics or medieval studies or biomechanics to over 3,000 in psychology. This may sound like a lot, but more than half will not want academic jobs. Other jobs pay more and demand less. In addition, most of the more than 4,000 higher educational institutions will be looking for faculty in a number of core disciplines. So there are fewer positions than candidates.

The best candidates have multiple offers, and will look to institutions where they can thrive. It is here that the collective resources of the Cross-Campus Alliance and the academic community it creates can tip the balance in attracting highly desirable faculty members to our area. Faculty are drawn by strong students, of course, but they are also attracted by the prospect of colleagues in disciplines related to theirs.

This past year, for example, New College hired a terrific neurobiologist who studies how neural circuits responsible for vocalization change in the course of evolution. Biologists at University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee participated in the hiring committee that brought her here, just as biologists at New College had earlier participated in the hiring of the USF-SM faculty.

Each year brings an ever-growing number of new faculty to Alliance institutions. This year, there are 66 new faculty, including another neurobiologist, a specialist in motion design and a nursing instructor.

USF Sarasota-Manatee’s new hires include two professors specializing in information technology. They brought national research grants with them including one from Google to train local high school teachers to teach Advanced Placement computer science courses.

A five-year, $750,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has drawn arts and humanities faculty at different Alliance and community arts organizations together in four exciting interdisciplinary projects. For example, a project called “Art Intersections: Art, Humanities and Science” will involve faculty in art, design, behavioral social science and mathematics from New College, Ringling College, and State College of Florida together with individuals from Art Center Sarasota and Realize Bradenton.

These projects are the tip of an iceberg. There are many others in the works. Faculty members are currently exploring the creation of courses explicitly designed for students at all Alliance institutions. Coding, a skill central to much of modern life, is emerging in different areas at the Alliance institutions, and we expect joint efforts here from our talented faculty members. This is an exciting time and we are creating synergy together that none of us could generate alone.

A version of this column appeared in the Nov. 19 edition of the Bradenton Herald.

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