Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Pratt Math & Science Department conducts search for new Chairperson

Posted 15 Oct 2017 / 0
2017-09-23cA sculpture created by Math & Science Scholar-in-Residence George Hart in 2016

The chairperson of my academic department at Pratt Institute, Carole Sirovich, will be retiring at the end of this academic year after well more than a decade of service as our leader. The Department of Mathematics and Science is currently searching for a new chairperson to succeed Carole starting Fall 2018. Here’s the official job announcement.

This is an incredibly important hire for Pratt as a whole and, of course, for the members of our department. I am not a member of the hiring committee, which gives me the chance to lay out what I think the challenges will be for this new chairperson… and what we as a department need from a new chairperson in order to succeed. Please take all of the ideas I present in this post with a grain of salt: I am but one person in a small-but-mighty department with diverse conceptions of what it means to be a “successful” Math & Science department housed within an institution focused on producing the culture makers of the future.

Understanding our place on campus

One thing I have learned about human social groups (and I have been a member of many of them!) is that to some degree they always function based on hierarchical dynamics. How exactly these hierarchical dynamics play out varies, but a good rule of thumb is that the numerical majority will often play a more dominant role. In academics I have seen this tendency towards hierarchy play out subtly (slight variations in the number of majors at the liberal arts college that I attended led to subtle power imbalances) and not-so-subtly (the big research institution from which I earned my PhD was clearly dominated by the natural sciences). At Pratt, the position of the Math & Science Department is pretty clear: we are dramatically out-numbered, and that puts us in a particularly vulnerable place in the institutional hierarchy.

To give you a sense of what I mean by this, we can look at the actual hierarchy of Pratt itself. Our department is housed in the School of Liberal Arts & Sciences. This school does house a number of majors, including undergraduate programs in Writing and Critical & Visual Studies and some exciting new graduate programs in Writing, Media Studies, and Performance & Performance Studies. But numerically the students who call our school home are a tiny minority of the campus community. And historically, there has been some push back against the School of Liberal Arts & Sciences expanding its role on campus; the perception seems to be that too much liberal arts dilutes the historical vision of Pratt as an institution of art and design, although this perception ignores the richer history of Pratt’s intellectual offerings. In our school we like to say that we are the “B” in the various “Bachelors of” degrees (BFA, BID, BArch) that our students earn from the other schools on campus, but there’s always been a tension about how much time our students should be spending outside of their creative studios.

Within our school, the Math & Science Department occupies a very different space than the rest of our sister departments, all of which house some undergraduate major and a variety of minors. We have the smallest faculty body among School of Liberal Arts & Sciences departments (although we do have a disproportionate number of full-time faculty), and the closest we come to directly serving a particular course of study at Pratt is to offer required courses in a variety of programs (Construction Management, Critical & Visual StudiesArchitecture, Sustainable Environmental Systems) and minors (Sustainability Studies). And our distance from the rest of the schools isn’t just metaphorical: we also occupy a space (the basement of the athetics building) that’s far away from our other colleagues in the School of Liberal Arts & Sciences.

This isn’t to say that our department has a purely — or even predominantly — antagonistic relationship with the rest of the campus: I know of numerous colleagues who value (and often utilize) science in their own teaching and scholarship, and our department certainly is not the only place on campus where scientific methods are used to generate understanding. It’s just that in the greater scramble for resources, we find ourselves rather out-numbered. As such, the first quality that I think that we will need in a new chairperson is the ability to steadfastly advocate for the importance of mathematical and scientific education and scholarship on campus. As with any other negotiation with the majority, this advocacy will require the ability to make the behemouths on campus see the value of math and science within the frame of their own interests. As I will make clear in laying out the value we bring to the campus below, this is certainly not an impossible task: it just will take political and social adeptness.

Valuing the quality teaching that goes on in our department

Pratt’s primary mission is clearly teaching; while there’s definitely also a lot of great scholarship happening on campus, Pratt is just starting to figure out how to support faculty research. And that’s fine with me, because I have seen what happens when an institution gets so devoted to research that it forgets that “universities” are there for the students who attend them. The tradition of a Pratt education is extremely deep, and is rooted in the small studio and seminar experiences that our students enjoy. Our department is part of that tradition: we don’t offer any auditorium-sized classes, and most of our courses are capped at between 15 and 22 students.

Our department has also been at the center of a lot of pedagogical innovation over the past ten years. Perhaps it is because we don’t offer any majors — that our pedagogical mission is purely to contribute to the general education of our students — that we have sought novel ways to engage our students in mathematical and scientific material. We’ve done a wonderful job of creating courses that are solidly based in mathematics and/or science but are tailored to the creative majors that our students pursue. Many of our courses empower students to develop creative works inspired by mathematical and scientific ideas explored in our curricula; some even ask students to present their work to a scientific jury. We have a number of really comprehensive laboratory-based courses  — most prominently in chemisty and physics — that allow students to discover scientific principles via direct inquiry. And in general our department is a hub of pedagogical design, as we not only create a lot of the activities that we use in our classes but also share them among our small-but-close-knit faculty. We are also innovators in the use of educational technologies in our courses.

So it is important that our new chairperson understand the kinds of challenges we face as perpetual providers of non-major material. Being a good teacher involves a lot of work, and being a good teacher to students who don’t necessarily come pre-motivated to engage with your subject takes even more work. Pratt is clearly taking this kind of work more seriously by developing a Teaching & Learning Center, and our department will need a leader who understands how to value and empower faculty who are striving to design a better Pratt education.

Honoring the research commitments of our faculty

It’s not easy being a science researcher at Pratt. We don’t have any majors — much less graduate students — to contribute to the monumental effort often involved in setting up experiments and gathering data. We have substantial teaching responsibilities that consume much of our effort (most faculty maintain a 3/3 load, which supposedly allows us to do research by releasing us from our contractual 4/4 load). And although we have some great facilities in particular realms (most prominently chemistry), we don’t have access to most of the basic scientific research facilities that our colleagues at other institutions take for granted.

Despite the challenges we face, a lot of research does get done by our faculty. Our Chemistry of Art Conservation laboratories conduct research on and beyond the Pratt campus, studying works of art in situ using a variety of non-destructive methods. One of our faculty is a well-known theoretical physicist whose theories have inspired experiments at Brookhaven National Laboratory’s relativistic heavy ion collider. Our faculty also conduct research in environmental chemistry, physics, sustainable engineering, and a variety of biological fields.

A big issue for our department has been securing funding for our existing research programs. Most research-active faculty maintain some sort of outside collaboration with other institutions in order to gain access to resources ranging from laboratory equipment to the academic literature. And for the most part, we have not been successful at bringing in funding to directly support research programs at Pratt. One of our faculty runs a public science non-profit that did secure a large National Science Foundation grant, suggesting that we might have better prospects for attracting funding if we can properly contextualize our research within Pratt’s strengths as an institution of art and design.

There is a lot of desire among our faculty to expand the research support we receive. I think that over the years we have come to realize that we can’t expect Pratt to directly fund our research projects; we need to find a way to obtain extramural funding. With the hiring of a new Associate Provost for Research and Strategic Partnerships, now is the time for our department to make a concerted effort seek outside resources. Our new chairperson will have to be capable of building faculty consensus towards this goal, to recognize areas of mutual interest that can lead to faculty coalitions and joint proposals, and to negotiate what’s still a very nascent research-support structure in Pratt’s upper administration.

It’s also important to recognize that scholarship within our department extends well beyond traditional basic science research; many of our faculty are involved in public communication of science and in other non-traditional research endeavors. An incoming chairperson will need to have an open mind about what constitutes “research” at a place like Pratt.

Supporting our attempts to reach out

One way that I conceptualize Pratt is as an engine of culture creation. Perhaps that is true of all universities, but it is particularly true of Pratt: our faculty and our students all make things that have the potential to shift the direction of the culture we live in. So it makes total sense that members of our department would be active in the effort to reach across disciplinary boundaries and connect with the general public. Our faculty are already doing a lot of outreach and public communication of science, and there is room for much more.

As previously mentioned, one of our faculty runs a non-profit dedicated to science communication that has been very successful, both in terms of its ability to obtain funding and what it has produced. We also have faculty who have been active in promoting the value of science. We have a really remarkable number of faculty who have been involved in efforts to make the Pratt campus in particular and the field of science in general a more welcoming (and therefore diverse) environment.

And now, we have an exciting collaborative endeavor that has the potential to serve as a platform for many of our outreach efforts: the STEAMplant. STEAMplant is a new initiative aimed at fostering interdisciplinary collaboration between the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields and “art” as defined by the diverse disciplines pursued at Pratt. It will create connections between a variety of Graduate Fellows and Residents and faculty at Pratt, producing public-facing works that have the potential to change how people think about the roles of art and science in our society. This initiative has been generously supported in it early phase by our Dean, but this project also needs to find a reliable source of funding.

Our new chair will have to value outreach, scientific and mathematical work that goes beyond the walls of Pratt and outside the narrow aisles of academia. Just as we need leadership that builds consensus towards our common research goals, we also need leadership that helps us to see the commonality in our efforts to do outreach.

Leveraging our exceptional service to the campus community

Service is one of those things that is really under-valued in academia. The meaning and scope of service varies radically from institution to institution. Some universities have a very top-heavy structure in which administrators (and, to be frank, bureaucrats) make most of the major decisions above the level of particular departments or programs. Other universities have a less dense administration and therefore rely more heavily on faculty performing various kinds of service to make the institution run. That’s Pratt: I have always been amazed by just how few administrators we have. That’s changing a bit as the emerging administrative leaders have realized that we need sufficient administrative support to keep the place running in a functional manner. But Pratt still maintains a tradition that I hope that it doesn’t lose, one of very strong faculty empowerment.

One source of that faculty empowerment is the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) that delineates the relationship between administrators and faculty. A key provision of our contract dictates that the standards for appointment, reappointment, promotion, and tenuring of faculty come from the faculty themselves. Departmental Peer Review Committees are elected by the faculty in that department and are charged with defining what it means to be a successful faculty member. While administrators retain the right to make their own interpretation of faculty achievement in light of these standards, they can’t make up their own standards. In my experience, this has been one of the most important forms of faculty empowerment on campus. We need a chairperson who understands that while the CBA does create limitations on administrative power, that is a good thing. Our department provides a shining example of what can happen when faculty are given the chance to define their own metrics of success.

The Pratt Faculty Union is not the only source of faculty empowerment. Pratt also has a very robust Academic Senate that reviews all academically-related policy and is charged with distributing a variety of funds that support faculty research and other projects. Our department is only entitled to one representative, but thanks to the election of one of our members to an “at-large” slot, we actually have two Academic Senators.

Perhaps not as visible but at least as influential as the Union and Senate are a myriad of committees and working groups on which members of our department serve. I cannot even list all of the very influential committees on which members of our department serve, but suffice to say that we are very heavily embedded in the adminstrative apparati that’s driving forward Pratt’s efforts to improve its General Education Program, to make Pratt a more welcoming and diverse campus, to make Pratt a more sustainable campus, and to improve the presence of various research efforts on campus. The service presence of our department is vastly disproportionate to our size. This is partly due to the large number of full-timers, but it’s also a function of the vibrant community orientation of our faculty members. We need a chairperson who can leverage the service we provide to the campus; this means making sure that service is valued both within and beyond the department.

Looking for the total package

Looking at my “demand list” above, it becomes clear that we are looking for a pretty remarkable person to be the next chairperson of the Department of Mathematics & Science at Pratt Institute. We are an unusual place, the intersection of a variety of worlds that rarely intersect in other academic settings. That’s the “tough news”: we don’t just need someone who is a competent administrator, we need a competent administrator who gets what it means to be a math and science department nested in an art and design school. But the good news is this: we already have faculty who, collectively, totally understand what we need to do in order to be successful. We just need the right person to help us sew that understanding together into a coherent whole.

A Major Post, Department of Mathematics & Science, Higher Education, Pratt Institute, Science as a career, Sustainability, Teaching

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