Aiming at Excellence as Our Science Evolves Amidst the Bumpiness of Modern Academia

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The health and stature of an academic department are strongly influenced by how its vision and mission mesh with those of the college/school and university. Aiming at this alignment is a continuous process, as it typically involves engaging competing interests and disparate world views of all participants, and is punctuated by weighty, albeit academically normal, events with varying recurrence intervals. For example, the typical (35-year) career faculty member in the U.S. will, on average, see 8.8 department chair (re)appointments, experience 7.8 academic deans and 5.3 presidents/chancellors, be eligible for 5 sabbaticals, hear about if not undergo 3.5 NRC ranking processes, contribute to 1.8 curriculum revisions at the college/school level and to one major curriculum revision at the department level, participate in at least N - 1 faculty searches and at least 0.8N tenure reviews (where N is faculty size, assumed to be steady), and see about one full turnover of the department faculty. If affiliated with a program where securing external funding is expected, this typical academician will with luck participate, on average, in at least 11.7 external grants. These events are sources of both inertia and acceleration, stability and instability; they are triggers of change as well as tools of change. Moreover, geoscience departments in particular are facing the need to reexamine their missions in response to the rapidly evolving scope of our science -- within the context of institutional pressures driven by changing student interests, prioritization in allocation of resources, changes in emphasis on educational level, and changing societal expectations of education. No steady states exist. Strength comes in aiming at a vision centered on agreed-upon principles of excellence that possess long time constants, using shorter recurrence-interval events as tools for tuning to this vision. Important examples occur in curriculum development/revision, hiring and mentoring practices, research program development, and balancing research with educational endeavors. Strength also comes with effective (continual) articulation of departmental aims and goals at all university levels.

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