As a Pennsylvania native, I’m really having a problem with Punxsutawney Phil these last two years. Do we really know if he saw his shadow, or is that a matter of interpretation? How can he see a shadow of anything on the dark, overcast days of winter in Punxsutawney? These are the questions I ponder while scraping my windshield and experiencing the painful, subzero wind chills.
As some of you may know, I started teaching again this semester (Organic and Sustainable Farming) and the main project is to grow a crop organically in the new high tunnel sited on the northwest corner of the Newark farm. This single-digit weather has really put a damper on enthusiasm for getting outside for some hands-on learning! The silver lining is that it reinforces the connection between farming and weather for the students, just one of many take home messages that I hope they will remember for the rest of their lives.
As we wait for the warmth of spring to return and bring our botanic gardens back to full glory (frozen, curled foliage on broadleaved evergreens is downright sad looking), here are a few things that have occurred during the winter months.
I. Peru and Kenya trips. Over the past few months, I made my first international trips since becoming dean. While at UGA, I taught study abroad, and at UF, I oversaw the portfolio of study abroad and student exchanges, so I was glad to get back to some familiar and rewarding territory. In November, I traveled to Kenya with Randy Wisser to establish the Borel Global Fellows program, made possible by a generous gift from Jim and Marcia Borel. Their gift will allow two African students per year to pursue an MS degree in CANR while researching a topic of great significance to their home country. We’re working with AGRA (Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa), a Nairobi-based organization, to help with recruiting and logistics. Last month, I spent about one week in Lima, Peru, meeting with university and government officials and various ag industry groups to raise awareness on the PRONOBEC-Presidente scholarship program for Peruvian students. UD has signed an MOU with the Peruvian government that should increase the number of MS and PhD students across campus. The PRONOBEC-Presidente scholarship provides very generous support for Peruvian students (airfare, stipend, partial tuition, and more). As I found out, the agricultural export business in Peru is simply booming, creating huge demand for trained professionals and researchers. Both trips were fruitful and should help bring several more graduate students from Africa and Latin America each year, all with their own sources of funding.
II. New faces, ongoing searches. I am so pleased to see Tara Trammell, our Bartram Professor of Urban Forestry, and Anna Wik, our assistant professor of landscape design, walking the hallways of Townsend and getting settled in. If you haven’t met them yet, please take a moment to welcome them to CANR. Just yesterday, I saw Ryan Arsenault, our soon-to-be assistant professor of food animal biology, who was here with his wife looking for places to live and sizing up his space in Worrilow. He accepted the position in ANFS a few weeks ago, and will be on board officially in June or July. We have three open searches that are each beyond the interview stage – natural resource economist (APEC), statistics (APEC), as well as the internal search for the next associate dean for research and graduate programs. Eric Wommack and Eric Benson are the finalists for the associate dean position, and the search committee is deliberating on this issue as I write. Please provide Mark Isaacs with any last minute input you might have ASAP!
III. New faculty mentoring underway. The collective wisdom offered through our strategic planning efforts and the four recent Academic Program Reviews prompted the development of a formal faculty mentoring series for our new hires. I’m glad to say that this is underway. The newest faculty are meeting biweekly to discuss issues such as the Master Plan, P&T, grants, teaching and learning, and other topics. Obviously, the mentoring must continue beyond this spring series, so I hope that one or more faculty will reach out to the newest hires in their departments and build on the foundation that is being laid.
IV. LEAN process for managing grants and contracts. Beginning last fall and peaking in December, all of the staff involved in grants and contracts for the College went through a LEAN process to troubleshoot and streamline their collective efforts. I attended a few sessions, as did several faculty and chairs, and everyone seemed to agree that it was a great experience that produced immediate, impactful results. Steve Horah, from Lean Change Agents, LLC, was brought in as a consultant to facilitate. I’m pleased to say that UD HR kicked in to help pay his bill, as they were glad to see staff development occurring organically (sorry, it’s on my mind these days) in the Colleges. Kathryn Thoroughgood has had her responsibilities redesigned to handle HR, as this turned out to be a “rate limiting step” in the process of managing grants from submission to close out. I learned a lot about the intricacies of managing grants and the great staff who runs 1/3 of the College’s budget behind the scenes. They’re doing great work! One sad postscript to this (sad for us, that is) is that Victor Peguero, the current CANR grants manager, was made an ‘offer he couldn’t refuse’ to move upward and onward to Johns Hopkins, which he’ll be doing in March. Victor was instrumental in the LEAN process and a great asset to the College for the last year and a half, and he will be sorely missed. We wish him the best as he moves into grants administration at the nation’s #1 research university down the road.
V. Coming soon – survey for the 2014 Federal Plan of Work. Each year, we must ask research and Extension faculty and professionals to provide information about the outputs and impacts of work that was funded from federal capacity funds (Hatch, Smith-Lever, Animal Health and McIntire-Stennis). Last year, we spent a lot of time revising our Plan of Work and implementing an Extension Planning and Reporting System, so that the annual chore of collecting information and writing the report would be greatly simplified. I’m glad to say that it has been greatly simplified, and nothing will be needed from Extension personnel beyond what they’ve already put into the Planning and Reporting system. Since we have no such system in place for research, we will be doing a brief survey of all faculty with research involvement in the coming days (similar to the one Tom Sims used to send out each spring, but shorter). It will ask you to select the research emphasis from the Master Plan that most closely describes your work, and provide simple output metrics (such as grants, publications, graduate students) and a brief impact statement regarding your 2014 work. From the Master Plan, our five research emphases are: Genetics and genomics for plant, animal and ecosystem improvement; Sustainable food systems, landscapes and ecosystems; “One health” – intersections among animals, plants, humans and ecosystems; Climate change – impacts, mitigation and adaptation; and Human dimensions of food, agriculture and natural resources. Please respond to the survey when it comes to you. Remember that the Plan of Work is our way of demonstrating the return on investment that $3.4 million of federal funds (plus its required state match) has had on our stakeholders. It is an essential part of our research enterprise and our annual budget.
V. Mid-term evaluation. Speaking of surveys, and as I said in the December 2014 Blog, I am happy to share the outcome of the IDEA Center survey that many of you received as part of my mid-term self-evaluation. The survey report will be sent by email shortly, but I’d like to summarize the major findings with you now. I welcome follow-up conversations on how I can improve in my role as dean over the coming weeks.
- The survey was modeled after the provost’s guidelines for reviewing deans at the end of their 5-year terms. The survey questions were identical to those used in the most recent dean’s review on campus. In theory, my mid-term results can be compared directly to results obtained when I am reviewed officially at the 5-year point.
- The response rate was about 44% (233 out of 528), which is good for a web-based survey. Of the respondents, the largest classification was “faculty” followed by “colleagues,” “students,” “not identified,” and “staff.”
- As you’ll see in the report, faculty tended to score me about one point or so below where students, colleagues, and staff rated me, suggesting that I need to communicate more effectively and build stronger relationships with faculty. On questions with a 5-point scale (strongly agree…….strongly disagree), faculty responses were about 3 while others rated at 4 out of 5. The same ~1 point difference between faculty and all other respondents held true on questions where respondents were presented a spectrum (e.g., indecisive=1 vs decisive=7) rather than a typical Likert scale. To me, this was one of the most important lessons of the self-evaluation, and while I need to make sure that lines of communication are open to all constituent groups, working with faculty in new ways will be a major priority in the future.
- 62% of all respondents answered positively when asked “overall, this administrator has provided excellent leadership,” while 21% were neutral and 17% were negative. Despite the relatively low percentage of negative ratings, to me this is large enough to be a concern.
- A slightly higher margin (66%) responded positively to “I have confidence in the administrator’s ability to provide future leadership in this position.” The same 17% responded negatively.
- Written comments were roughly even between positive, negative, and neutral. This might be expected given the three open-ended questions: the first asked about strengths and the vast majority of responses were positive. The second asked about ways to improve, where most comments cited weaknesses in style, judgment or effectiveness. The third question asked about future challenges, and most of the responses were neutral as people were citing issues such as “budget” or “deferred maintenance,” and not commenting on my performance per se. They were simply pointing out what are (indeed) the major challenges that the College faces moving forward.
- As communication seemed to be a recurring theme throughout the survey results, I checked the web analytics on the Dean’s Blog page – what you’re reading right now – to see if it is being read. For December’s Blog, only about 25% of email recipients opened the page. The web folks tell me that this is actually good for an Internet blog, but I am struck by the 75% of intended recipients that don’t see it. This just underscores the need for opening new lines of communication and finding ways to improve existing ones.
Like teaching evaluations, it is a humbling, yet constructive experience to read through this mid-term evaluation of my performance. Obviously, there is room for improvement, particularly in communication, which is something I plan to address immediately. You may recall that I offered an invitation for coffee or lunch to anyone willing in my first semester on campus:
I still have many more of you to meet, so once again, I extend the invitation to have coffee or lunch, or simply chat about your program or issues of concern. I have really enjoyed learning about Delaware agriculture and natural resource successes and challenges over these four+ months, but have a long, long way to go. Please, take me up on it! [Dean’s Blog, December 2012].
In retrospect, I probably should have been more proactive in asking you, not waiting for you to ask me, for an opportunity to get to know you better. Thus, don’t be surprised if I invite you to spend some time sharing your views and concerns. Please know that I take seriously the concerns voiced by any of the 260+ employees or 960+ students of the College (and their parents!). As I said when I interviewed, I work for you (ALL of you), and ultimately, I will measure my success by your success. I thank you for taking the time to complete the survey.
The blog will return in April, after a brief visit to Punxsutawney.