Issues Raised in Departmental Meetings

During November, 1996, members of the Steering Committee met with faculty in each of the departments in the Natural Sciences to discuss the process of Strategic Planning that was underway in our division. Faculty views on various topics (e.g., graduate and undergraduate studies, outreach issues, and faculty and research issues) pertaining to this division and to Rice in general were discussed. Following is a summary of many of the points that arose in these discussions. While this list by no means comprehensively covers all areas, it does provide information and insight regarding what faculty see as key issues in the planning process for our future.

Graduate Studies

1. Recruiting/Quality. There is strong sentiment for improving the quality of our students, and a variety of mechanisms should be explored to address this issue. The need for effective division-wide and even institution-wide recruiting efforts was indicated repeatedly. The absence of attractive graduate housing impedes recruiting. The application fee was also cited as an impediment to graduate recruiting. One suggestion was to increase stipend levels.

2. Support. Funding for graduate students during periods of lapsed funding and the use of fringe benefits "tax" were issues that arose across multiple Departments.

3. Teaching. Concerns were raised regarding the source of stipends for students involved in teaching during their second year.

4. Foreign students. There is a tension between admitting excellent foreign students and training domestic students. How does Rice define its role? What are the limitations? We need to examine our goals and fit these into an overall policy/ideal.

5. Atmosphere. Graduate students are often ignored by the institution, creating a negative atmosphere for graduate and postdoctoral students.

6. Broad-based training programs. The development of training programs for graduate studies across multiple departments, divisions, and institutions was raised as one mechanism for expanding our recruiting capacity and generating enthusiasm in specific areas.

7. Future employment. Concerns regarding the future employment of our students were raised, and suggestions ranged from divisional courses in some areas to internships in industry. Balancing the time that students spend in such efforts versus research is very important.

8. Surveying graduate students. We should ask our M.A. and Ph.D. graduates how well we prepared them. We need to seek information from our graduates.

Faculty/Research Issues

1. Faculty time. In several of the Departments, the limited time that faculty have to devote to any specific activity was decried. Faculty have to do everything - we need to reconsider our reward structure to allow faculty to pursue new areas and not demand that faculty do everything (sometimes poorly).

2. Support. For the University to move forward as a research institution, a greater level of institutional support will be essential, including graduate student stipends/tuition, technical staff, small equipment, matching funds, transitional funding for situations where there is a lapse (which will be increasingly frequent in the national funding context). The new Service Center policy is another example of interference from the administration that may well impede the maintenance of self-supporting facilities.

3. Funding. Can we be proactive in ways that help us advance during a period of diminishing federal support? One serious problem is that developing programs that might generate funding also take time that is now over-committed to other activities.

4. Postdoctoral support. The atmosphere for postdoctoral students is quite negative. These individuals form the cadre of our most promising future scholars and can be of great benefit in our quest to move forward in the research sphere. Yet, there are institutional policies that impede our recruiting the brightest and best of these scholars to Rice. To compete nationally, we must change this atmosphere and rethink our policies.

5. Rewards. The current reward structure effectively penalizes activities outside of research and teaching, and to some degree directing effort toward teaching that results in diminished research output is also penalized. If we desire a different set of priorities in the faculty, the reward system must be changed to encourage such a shift.

6. Rankings. Concerns were expressed in multiple Departments about improving our rankings in national surveys, from undergraduate to graduate programs. It was perceived to be the job of the Strategic Planning Committee to determine how to achieve an improvement in our rankings.

7. Recruiting. Proactive efforts at faculty recruiting are essential. Identify the best young people in the country and go after them.

8. Computing. The faculty requires continual upgrade of computing equipment, much of it used for teaching and administration rather than research.

9. Indirect costs. Where do our indirect costs go?

10. Tenure. What is the review policy at Rice? How will tenure decisions be made in the future? Will tenure vanish at Rice? What are our institutional guidelines for tenure/promotion/raises? This information should be communicated effectively to the faculty. We need to be proactive in protecting the elements of tenure that ensure academic freedom, but abuses of the system must also be addressed.

11. Additional Issues. We should have 11 or 12 months salaries for faculty, starting with new hires and with a long-term plan (40 years) for the entire faculty.

Undergraduate Studies

1. Support staff and equipment. Adequate instructional support staff and equipment for our undergraduate laboratories in the division were a major concern. Support for the tutorial system was a major concern in Physics.

2. Curricular revision. Multiple efforts at curricular revision are underway in the Division; it may be worthwhile to coordinate some of this effort. Expanding enrollments in Chemistry, Physics, and Biosciences courses are a particular problem.

3. Research experience and B.A. vs B.S. degrees. Efforts to provide additional opportunities for undergraduate research were suggested. The possibility of offering a B.S. degree with a requirement for senior research was discussed. The current curriculum may place barriers to research-involvement for students (e.g., too many course requirements). We need to assess the advantages of an undergraduate model that puts more intellectual pressure on our students to participate in the creative aspects of research.

4. Classrooms and resources. Concerns about classroom availability, equipment, and size were brought up by multiple Departments. Greater resources for undergraduate teaching are required if we are to maintain our quality.

5. Additional instructional personnel. The Evans Instructors in Mathematics and Huxley Fellows in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology were cited as an excellent model for expanding the faculty available for teaching while at the same time having bright, new, effective colleagues in a Department. This model might be expanded to other Departments.

Undergraduate students currently serve as graders and as teaching assistants in Physics labs, but it is difficult to get sufficient numbers. Named instructors may provide a partial solution.

6. "Big Three" concerns. The effect of the "big three" on our retention of incoming students was raised. Where do these students go? Should we reconsider entrance requirements (per Physics)?

7. Teaching evaluation. The present mechanisms for evaluation were considered insufficient, and suggestions were made for longer-term evaluation to determine how students felt about their courses later in their careers.

8. Seminar series for freshman. A series to acquaint freshman with multiple aspects of science and engineering was suggested.

9. Interdisciplinary courses. More problem-oriented, skills-oriented (speaking, writing) interdisciplinary courses are needed at Rice. These courses should be oriented toward the future and be directed at non-majors.

10. Tension between graduate and undergraduate studies. How does our shift in emphasis from undergraduate to graduate studies affect the undergraduate program?


1. Educating the public. One of our roles is to educate the public about science, but there are minimal rewards for such effort. It might be useful to have a good science writer/reporter on campus to facilitate better local public relations efforts.

2. Continuing education efforts. Geology & Geophysics is poised to make unique contributions in this area with the changes in the oil industry. Using unique resources (e.g., the Web) could provide an important educational niche for Rice. Such developments will require support, especially personnel, from outside the Department.

3. Integration. The multiple efforts of the Natural Sciences (and even other divisions) in continuing education, computer-based education, K-12 education, development of new courses for undergraduates et al. should be integrated with regard to information and also support staffing.

4. Industry contacts. Our connection with industry much reach beyond continuing education. Partnerships with industry can be very fruitful, but Rice must develop the policy structure that facilitates these interactions and allows facile contacts and research support funding. We need to overcome the view that industry support is second-class.

5. Rewards for participation. If outreach is considered to be valuable for the institution, our system of rewards needs to recognize these efforts and provide appropriate support for involvement.

6. Development. Contacts with the Development office and information about how to generate funding are required.

Overlapping Issues

1. Infrastructure. Serious issues were raised in almost every Department regarding the absence of effective infrastructure. The level of dysfunction is the system is perceived to be exceptionally high.

  1. Attitude. The negative attitude in many campus service offices was cited as a serious impediment to achieving our goals. These offices should be available to serve the educational and research efforts of the university, and their attitudes should be toward serving rather than controlling.

  2. Level of support. The lack of staff support in the Departments for either teaching or scholarship was noted repeatedly. This dearth of effective support currently hampers achieving our goals and is a serious concern in any planning for the future.

  3. Quality of support. Even in those areas where support may be well deployed and be positive in attitude (e.g., divisional computer support), the quality of that support may not effectively meet the needs of the faculty.

  4. Growth of administration. Concerns were expressed in multiple Departments about the expansion of the upper administration and central administrative support staff without a concomitant improvement in the service provided. In many cases, a diminution of the level of service was perceived.

  5. Physical plant. The on-going problems in dealing with problems related to facilities and engineering issues (fume hood problems, etc.) were another example of the gap between our needs and the level of service provided.

One solution discussed adopted the divisional computer support model: Have administrators from different offices spend some time in the divisions to become better acquainted with the problems. Similarly, for the administrators that are faculty, devotion of a small percentage time to teaching was suggested as a means to bridge the significant gap that exists.

Our administrative policies should be designed to achieve our strategic goals. Where these are in tension, the policies should be examined carefully to bring them into alignment.

2. Coordination and Communication. Our efforts must be coordinated within the Division (and across the University) to make the best possible use of our resources. Effective coordination ultimately rests on clear communication of our resources, our goals, and our processes and policies. The multiple planning processes that are on-going should be integrated. We need to find common interests across boundaries and work hard at working together.

Concerns about how decisions get made, what our priorities are, what is valued, how resources are allocated, what the nature/goals of Institutes and Centers are were raised. Feedback to the faculty and Departments is important. Decisions within Departments require knowing about the goals and values of the University.

3. Radical thinking. The Steering Committee was encouraged to think radically, expansively, and creatively. (Example: Merge with Baylor College of Medicine; thematic planning across the division; complete reorganization or elimination of Departments). The Strategic Plan should be short, sweet, and to the point. It must be focused to be effective at fund-raising and not diffuse our efforts.

4. Representation of women and minorities. Concerns were expressed in multiple departments about the dearth of women and minorities on the senior faculty, and in some cases the junior faculty and students. Efforts to identify ways to recruit women and minorities will be essential for the future.

5. Support staff. The issue of staff support for activities encompassing efforts in research, teaching, and outreach was raised repeatedly. We need additional support staff in the Departments that coordinate with each other and fewer higher level support staff that are out of touch with the needs of the Departments.

6. Implementation. The goals of the Strategic Plan must be accompanied by specific and effective mechanisms for implementation.

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