|Foggy haze over the UC Merced Vernal Pools Reserve, 2016|
Campus culture at many universities is typically considered primarily for the benefit of students. Faculty community and culture is a more subtle aspect of university life. In her article on faculty culture at Gettysburg College, President Riggs highlighted ways in which her faculty could more readily form personal bonds and communication through shared meals, workshops, and awards (Riggs, 2011). For the last 6.5 years, I have had the opportunity to experience faculty culture and community at two University of California campuses, both of which are Hispanic-serving institutions with a high proportion of first generation students. The differences between the two campuses revealed to me that what makes work life pleasant and meaningful can be simple and relatively straightforward to implement.
In 2013, when my husband and I moved from Washington, DC, to UC Merced, we arrived with experience, energy and a sense of excitement to join with faculty and administrators – to be change agents- in helping to bring about the next phase in building this new UC campus. We each brought with us over 35 years of experience in our respective fields. It was our intention to put ourselves into the service of UC Merced to help create a new world-class educational and research environment that is the hallmark of the University of California. We looked forward to interacting with a large and diverse faculty. The group I aligned with and chaired for three years boasted a faculty consisting of 50% women, with a diverse racial makeup. The student body was also an attractive, challenging aspect of coming to UCM. UCM’s first generation and Hispanic serving designation offered us something very different from what we had experienced for the bulk of our careers. My husband and I also had visions of building strong, new academic programs geared towards interdisciplinarity, as well as a natural reserve that would join the ranks of the well-known and established reserves.
Our expectations were high when we arrived at UCM, because the University of California’s reputation is as one of the best public universities in the world. After arriving and settling in, elements that contribute to a healthy and productive faculty culture seemed missing. For example, ample, useful physical space is critical to a productive faculty culture, especially for faculty who need laboratories to conduct their research. In early 2013, many new science faculty were housed in an off campus outpost, “The Castle”, located almost 12 miles away from main campus. While our offices at Castle were nice and spacious, lab spaces were plagued with electrical outages, air conditioning failures, contamination from agricultural dust, and outdated infrastructure. Except for trips to the main campus for teaching or the occasional seminar, most of us felt little connection with the campus or with other faculty. As a result of the isolation and sub-par facilities, faculty were dispirited.
Because UCM did not have defined departments with dedicated meeting spaces, the only options for meetings on campus were in the one communal gathering spot – the Lantern coffee bar –or in an office we shared with other Castle colleagues. This made it challenging to simply meet formally or informally. Compounding this, on campus, most faculty members kept office doors closed. Seminars are a great place to find like-minded people available for informal conversation and banter. Unfortunately, attendance at weekly seminars was scanty. After almost three years at Castle, I moved to main campus after my new lab was completed and looked forward to joining in earnest the campus community. It was difficult to find those diverse colleagues that I hoped to interact with. I could not identify who was pushing for innovation and imagination on the campus. I still missed gathering with faculty to share ideas, lab stories, and grant successes.
Almost all faculty spent a significant amount of time during the week off the campus working from home, even those with laboratories and graduate students. Many faculty parsed their day in 15-minute increments, lessening their ability to engage in unplanned banter. Lunch options on campus were limited to the student dining hall, the coffee shop, or a couple of food trucks. Even during lunch hour, it was difficult to mix and mingle with colleagues. On a Friday afternoon, you could fire off a cannon on the quad without fear of hitting a student or faculty member.
The heart of university culture is fruitful interaction between professors and students. Interactions with students at UCM were problematic. Graduate students often expressed frustration that their major professors were not available in person for questions. Even though UCM is a small campus, they felt anxious a good deal of the time, worried that their labs were not running well or that their progress was slowed too much by the “newness” of UCM. Undergraduate students from my Fundamentals of Ecology course expressed frustration that they spent four years on campus and yet had never had a one on one conversation with a faculty member. Most of them had never been invited into a laboratory; if they had, it was typically a one time short visit, often hosted by a TA. Those undergrads lucky enough to be invited to join a professor’s lab were in the minority, not the norm, as UCM administrators often implied. By the time most students had graduated, they were bereft of ideas about their next career options.
In the Academic Senate, I met faculty from other Schools: Engineering and Humanities, Social Sciences and Arts. With very little administrative support, faculty juggled teaching and research, as well as a hefty schedule of university service and administrative duties leaving little time left for creativity, social interaction, and innovation. When campus administrators asked faculty for their vision going forward, the process was painful and divisive. Faculty struggled to come together to forge new pathways. As a member of a Senate committee, I listened to internal squabbles and watched as some older faculty bullied their way into running the show, while good ideas by younger faculty were often squashed. There simply was very little interdisciplinarity or campus camaraderie.
|Jay Sexton, Peggy O'Day, and Jessica Blois, department colleagues|
Although UCM planned for many university-wide functions, the value and importance of a campus community for faculty and staff never rose to the top of its priorities (Merritt and Lawrence, 2007). Experienced support staff and dedicated, supportive administrators are crucial to helping faculty do their job. As unit Chair, as well as building two laboratories at UCM, I worked with many UCM staff and administrators. Competent people were routinely overworked and often underappreciated. Incompetent employees were shifted from one unit to another, and added to the workloads of those who were working effectively and efficiently. Administrators, who were interactive, decisive, and personable, dealt frequently with those who were not. Even at the highest levels, people came and went. It was difficult to establish the types of relationships that are crucial for getting things done. Social interactions after work were limited and difficult. It was rare for faculty or administrative leaders to open their homes for casual gatherings. Many senior campus leaders did not maintain a permanent home in the Merced area and commuted “home” to their families on Friday afternoons.
|Science Lab 1: my lab was on the 2nd floor of this wing|
Now in late 2019, UC Merced has almost finished with ambitious building plans, and with a new Chancellor could now devote attention to the campus faculty culture. Recognizing the potential contributions of all faculty members is key. Whether a Full Professor or a pre-tenured Assistant Professor, new ideas need to be encouraged, listened to and tested. Faculty at UCM are primed for creating an energized campus culture and community. Nearly everyone that I interacted with at UCM was bright, enthusiastic and committed – but often only for the first couple of years. Too many became disillusioned, when informal, casual campus interactions failed to uplift, include, and transform. It’s time to make coming to campus worthwhile, rewarding, and even “fun”. Even with the revolving door at many institutions of higher education, there can be an enduring message to those in the “family” that they are respected and important, creating a positive supportive campus culture---something that can’t be bought, but is worth its weight in gold.
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