Membership brings opportunity for change at Rutgers' largest school
"All of the Big Ten schools, including Rutgers, are trying to achieve the same mission for the country. And as the country changes, the mission evolves. It's actually quite thrilling."
In 2013, Rutgers University joined the Big Ten Academic Alliance (formerly the Committee on Institutional Cooperation), a prestigious consortium of Big Ten member research universities and the University of Chicago. The membership provides Rutgers with unique opportunities to collaborate on research, academic programming, and other initiatives with member schools.
But this affiliation with the great research universities of the Midwest also carries strategic importance for the School of Arts and Sciences as it plans for its future. In the interview below, Executive Dean Peter March discusses how the Alliance can provide some intriguing role models for managing and transforming a large liberal arts and sciences institution.
Q: How does Rutgers' membership with the Big Ten Academic Alliance inform your leadership of Arts and Sciences?
A: I've recently contacted member institutions that, like Rutgers, have comprehensive schools of arts and sciences. They're providing me with a wealth of information, such as the number of tenured and non-tenured faculty and the teaching responsibilities they have. I've also asked for information on undergraduate and graduate studies, staff, facilities, and external grant funding.
Q: How will you go about using that information?
A: These are the metrics you want to collect when you calibrate yourself against institutions that are configured in a similar way. Now that Rutgers has done a strategic plan, and we are working towards adopting a plan for Rutgers University–New Brunswick, it's time for the School of Arts and Sciences to follow up with its own strategic plan. Strategic plans are a way of saying who you are, what your mission is, and what you're going to look like in five or 10 years. For the plan to be effective, you have to benchmark yourself, and now that we are in the Big Ten, we have a great opportunity to benchmark ourselves against our peers.
Q: Rutgers is new to the Big Ten. What are the commonalities that we share with these mostly Midwestern institutions?
A: We all share the same land grant mission. It's an important piece of history that goes back to the Morrill Act of 1862. Think of it: the country is in the depths of the Civil War, yet President Lincoln and the congressional leadership devoted time and effort to think about the future of the country. At that time, people were aware the US was transitioning from a primarily agricultural to an industrial economy. There was a need for a much broader group of people to be educated on a much deeper level. So this land grant mission was established to broadly serve and educate the public. It's really in our institutional DNA.
Q: How can this process of benchmarking help Rutgers and Arts and Sciences move forward?
A: Rutgers' history is one of near constant change, the most recent and visible being the integration of Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences, which roughly doubled the size of Rutgers overnight. All institutions change, of course, but rapid and persistent change is really characteristic of our evolution. Now we have the opportunity to network with institutions that have had a gentler evolutionary path. These schools have had more time to do integration and have worked out good models of internal management.
Q: Is there an ideal model that Rutgers or Arts and Sciences should emulate? What would that look like?
A: One of Rutgers' strengths is a very strong sense of innovation and entrepreneurial spirit among the faculty. That constant state of change I referred to has provided opportunities for people who have good ideas and motivation to accomplish things here, which might be more difficult to accomplish in a university that has a more established tradition.
One of my goals for Arts and Sciences is to manage ourselves in a more effective way, with clear lines of authority, responsibility, and communication. We don't want to become so rigid that we dampen that spirit of innovation. We want to bring it all into a careful balance so there's a way of vetting ideas and choosing strategically to support them. The idea is to use the structure of the university to accelerate innovation, not to kill it.
Q: Coming from The Ohio State University, you had your own experience with the Big Ten. What was that like?
A: I was lucky enough to be selected as a academic leadership fellow more than 15 years ago. It was a year-long leadership development program. The program itself was very valuable, but equally valuable was the opportunity to meet your counterparts at other universities. What you find is that many of the issues you are dealing with at your own institution have been solved in a very satisfactory way on other campuses. And it's almost always the case that there is something you've done in your own institution that can help solve a pressing issue at another campus.
So the learning is reciprocal. We are competitors, in an obvious sense, but because we share the same land grant mission, we are also, simultaneously, close collaborators. So, as the years go by, and you assume more responsibility, you are plugged into a network that allows for mutual problem-solving and learning. That's a good thing.