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Rewarding Innovative Faculty

Rewarding Innovative Faculty
 

A faculty member recently wrote to ask how the University rewards “disruptively” innovative faculty whose contributions lay outside formal research. I had to think about this one, among other things because adducing individual examples would not always be appropriate. But it’s a good question, and I think I have elements of an answer.

I leave aside two issues that would need to be included in a more extensive discussion:  that not all innovations pan out, and that superior innovators’ performance is not the only kind of superior performance to be rewarded.

It’s always possible that universities, like other institutions, will underplay innovation. As Mason grows as a research institution, we might place less emphasis on innovations in other categories (which is where the question was directed), though as I will suggest below we have some compensatory mechanisms.  A lot of our reward system is filtered through department chairs, deans and often faculty committees—as Provost, I have limited access independently to information about innovation—as these filters might miss out on innovation or even feel threatened by it (note the disruptive adjective in the question). So we may not always do as well in this category as the questioner probably hopes.

On the other hand, we pride ourselves on being an innovative university, and I don’t think we’re a lost cause.  In promotions and decisions about raises, we pay specific attention to teaching, and can register on successful or promising innovations in this category, and we also credit service, admittedly a more amorphous area.  Obviously, we’ve had some recent years without raises, which complicates our record de facto, but this does not mean a problem in principle.

Certainly our teaching dossiers often specifically mention fruitful innovations in program development or curricula (again I leave explicit research aside).  In years past, faculty pioneers in such innovative interdisciplinary areas as conflict analysis or computational biology have certainly been duly noted. More recently, I don’t think I’m speaking out of school in mentioning that promotions rewards have gone to individuals for innovative arrangements such as our Smithsonian Mason conservation semester, or an imaginative Economics MOOC, or the implementation of the Science accelerator project—and rightly so, for these innovations clearly benefit students and institution alike.  I trust that the faculty who have contributed so actively to developing new classroom formats get credit in the teaching effectiveness category—again, we’re open to rewarding “genuine excellence” in teaching, and innovation does and should count here.

We may have a problem nevertheless, and I am open to comment on categories or approaches that deserve more attention.

One other complication must be noted, again with no individual reference in mind.  Dramatic innovators don’t always apply for standard administrative slots, which means there may be some disjuncture between innovation and this aspect of our reward system—assuming selection for administration can be regarded as a reward.  It is also true that innovators may not always be the best administrative shepherds of their own innovations—different skill sets are sometimes involved, and this can create some understandable confusion.  Rewards are still due, but they may be mixed with some other operational decisions.

With all this, there certainly should be no doubt about our institutional intent:  we have benefited hugely from innovative faculty, outside the research area as well as within, and we wish to identify and reward properly.  Again, suggestions welcome.