Johnson C. Smith Faculty Release Policy Praised and Questioned
By Kendra HamiltonThere may be no sweeter words to a faculty member’s ears than “release time.” Try saying them out loud: “RELEASE TIME.” Notice how they trip off of the tongue, evoking visions of articles or even books completed, of new directions in research explored, of long, sweet stretches of emptiness in which to get things done. Dare to imagine someone else shouldering part of your teaching load so that you can pursue these projects.
Ah, yes, such opportunities are the substance of scholarly dreams. One of the reasons release time is so sweet is that it’s so hard to get. Sabbaticals? Those may come along twice a decade, if you’re lucky. Grants? The competition for them is so fierce many scholars don’t even try. Innovative release-time programs? Good luck finding one outside of an elite research institution, right?
Wrong. Dead wrong.
One of the most innovative release-time programs in the country currently is being offered at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C. — a school that’s bucking all kinds of stereotypes. Small, Southern and historically Black, Johnson C. Smith is oriented toward teaching, not research. But according to administrator Frank Parker, a new trend is emerging among the
“I guess you could say we’ve gone proposal crazy,” says Parker, director of information services/development at the university. Referring to proposals his faculty has generated in recent years, Parker says, “I’d estimate we’ve had a doubling of the number of proposals” sent out to foundations and to the federal government. He cites the university’s Incentive Awards Program as the reason for the surge.
The program uses a special discretionary fund established by the board of trustees to give bonuses to faculty members who bring successful grants to the university, says Dr. Dorothy Cowser Yancy, president of Johnson C. Smith. The bonuses amount to 1 percent of the total amount of the grant; thus, a $500,000 grant would garner a $5,000 bonus. There is only one requirement: The proposal must align with the mission and values of the university.
“We are not interested in grants for the sake of grants,” Yancy says. As excited as Johnson C. Smith is about the program, not all academics view these types of faculty incentive programs with the same enthusiasm. An administrator at Baltimore’s Morgan State University, for example, deplored the Johnson C. Smith program as a form of academic “play for pay.”
But Yancy praises the program as “entrepreneurial,” and it cannot be disputed that faculty members at Johnson C. Smith appear to have warmed to the approach.
Parker has always been one of the university’s most active grant seekers.
“I guess (that’s) because for so many years I’ve been part of the education/administrative wing. Monies are limited there; we’re chronically in need of funds,” he explains.
Where many would have griped or bemoaned a harsh fate, Parker spied an opportunity. He says he used to average close to a million dollars a year in grants for the university, but adds, “I haven’t been that good in a while.” But his success has been a part of the university’s blueprint for getting other faculty members in on the grants-getting game.Teaming up for Success
Parker says a lot of teamwork takes place so that new people can benefit from being paired with more experienced faculty. “That’s been a strong, positive orientation for the university, in a lot of different ways,” he says. “Now we’re always engaged in conversation, always looking for new opportunities.
“And as people write together, we build a library of successful proposals together and we also engage in a kind of team-building that’s very positive.”
For example, in 1998 Parker partnered with Dr. Phyllis Worthy Dawkins, director of faculty development and co-director of the HBCU Faculty Development Program, to seek a grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation. The university already had in hand a “white paper” on teaching and technology in which it had articulated a focus on collaboration and teaming. And so, when the Mellon opportunity came along, Parker and Dawkins used the white paper to articulate a further focus on the development of “learning communities.” They were awarded $500,000 and the program began the following January.
In one component of the project, Dawkins explains, groups of courses in various departments were organized by themes — for example, “The Civil Rights Movement in North Carolina.” While one group of students conducted oral interviews, others worked on photography and graphics, wrote text and created a multimedia presentation of what they had learned.
In another component, a group of about 100 liberal studies students engaged in what Dawkins calls “cross-course environments,” in which widely divergent departments share assignments. For example, if students work on a unit on “ethical issues” in their biology class, that work is reinforced in a computer science class by creating a PowerPoint presentation on the topic and again in a speech class with a debate or spoken presentation. All these experiments in learning and cross-course environments were interwoven with the institution’s goal of improving the university’s technology infrastructure.
“We wired our residential halls, improved our multimedia classroom development, completely digitized our foreign language lab,” Parker says, adding that the final phase of the two-year grant — equipping students with the technology — is now under way.
“All our students will be getting laptops [this fall],” Dawkins says. “Needless to say, we’re very excited.”Loving the Work
Another significant program made possible in part by the Incentive Award Program is Johnson C. Smith’s Russian Language and Culture Program, which has just completed its second year, says Dr. Maxine Moore, dean of the Honors College and James B. Duke professor of English. The program was funded in 1998 by a $420,000 grant from the Department of the Army’s National Security Education Program. Moore shared the grant writing — and thus the reward — with the director of the university’s international relations program. And while Johnson C. Smith administers the grant, students from the other five HBCUs in the North Carolina Consortium for International and Intercultural Education may also participate. These schools include Bennett College, North Carolina Central University, North Carolina A&T University, Fayetteville State University, and St. Augustine’s College.
Participating students have come from universities as far away as Georgia and Iowa. Students in the program take intensive courses in Russian language and literature followed by a summer of cultural immersion at Moscow’s State Institute for International Relations, or MEGIMO, Moore says. “Of course, the 25 percent release time” she obtained to administer the grant “is not exactly realistic, so we often work evenings and weekends to get the work done. But it’s work that I love to do.”
Indeed, passion for the project seems to be the common denominator for those who have joined Johnson C. Smith’s network of eager grant seekers.
“The general complaint is that we never have enough time, and that’s both true and not true,” Parker says. “Those who write grants and research do so regardless of time. But this (the incentive program) opens the door for those who might be a bit more reluctant. If you have any sense at all that the university is using you, you can also see how you can serve your own interests.”
And that’s exactly the point, notes Yancy. The Incentive Awards Program is simply a way to show the administration’s appreciation for efforts above and beyond the call of duty. Yancy says she knows precisely how onerous some faculty duties can be.
“From the outside looking in, [being a professor] looks like a pie job, doesn’t it?” she says. “But we really understand the stress and pressures of trying to balance teaching with doing your own work and serving on a zillion committees.
“As educators, we know we’re in it for the long haul, that the results of what we do may not show up in people’s lives for many years. That’s why we created this program — as a morale booster. Everybody needs a little immediate gratification,” she adds.
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