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Looking For a Few Good Ideas

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Looking For a Few Good Ideas

Provost Tom James


The Provost’s Investment Fund is backing faculty collaboration at TC.

By Jonathan Sapers

Three years ago, when Provost Tom James was dispersing grants to TC faculty members from a new fund designed to stimulate cross-disciplinary innovation, he gave $20,000 to create a faculty working group on Latino education. Cynics might have raised an eyebrow: After all, why pay for a bunch of professors to talk to one another? Why not beef up the College’s bilingual focus or back a public school in a Latino neighborhood?

But from the first, James had intended his fund as venture capital: put a little in to get something a lot bigger out—not a band-aid fix but something genuinely transformational. Latinos are the fastest-growing sector of the U.S. population, hailing from the world’s more than 20 Spanish-speaking countries, with cultures as vastly dissimilar as those of Mexico and Peru. Addressing their educational needs would require dealing with health, income, religion, political systems and other issues. Clearly, it made sense to harness a broad range of talents—talents that TC possesses in abundance.

“People who think about Latinos happen to be all over the College, they’re not just in bilingual education,” James says.

Three years later, the decision is looking pretty good.

“They have gotten three external grants,” James says of the working group. “They’re assisting in fundraising for scholarships for Latino students, and they’re helping to create a minor in Latino education at TC that could flow across health education and psychology. That will help people in different fields build their knowledge base in Latino education, and it will also make TC stronger in relation to a whole sector of our enrollment base.”

James launched the Provost’s Investment Fund in 2007, inspired by a similar program he helped administer at Brown University. That effort had arisen from the ashes of a failed attempt by a vice president to spark change at the school by giving every faculty member, administrator and student a Wang computer. When James arrived, as he likes to tell it, there were Wang computers gathering dust in closets all over campus. He came to TC determined never to legislate innovation from the top down.

“I wanted to say to our faculty, ‘What are your ideas?’ and then be able to empower and enable their ideas, build them up and drive with political will,” he says of the Investment Fund. “Because I don’t think that I have a prior idea that’s going to be better than theirs.”

During the past three years, the Provost’s Investment Fund has awarded more than 40 grants of $20,000 each to seed better ideas ranging from an economic literacy pilot program to a symposium on creativity in education.
Projects that receive funding must meet three basic criteria.

First and foremost, they must address an issue of major societal concern. At TC, that’s pretty much a given, but the list of initiatives that have been funded is particularly impressive. It includes:

•  The nation’s first master’s degree program for diabetes educators. Launching in Fall 2011 under the direction of Kathleen O’Connell, TC’s Isabel Maitland Stewart Professor of Nursing Education, the program will equip clinicians and care managers with a greater, more research-based understanding of how diabetes develops and evolves across different populations. It will also provide them with advocacy skills. Those will be in demand because currently 23.6 million people in the United States have diabetes—double the number in 1990—and the disease is now the seventh leading cause of death nationwide. More alarmingly, an estimated 2 million U.S. children ages 12–19 have pre-diabetes, and the incidence of type 2 diabetes in adolescents has increased 10 times over the past decade, now constituting just under one-third of new pediatric diabetes cases.

•  A working conference for public school teachers, held earlier this summer, focusing on illiteracy in middle and high school students. An estimated 75 percent of high school graduates in the United States are deficient in literacy skills, a figure that cuts across ethnic and socioeconomic groups. The statistic is a major reason why the United States, once the world leader in educational attainment, now ranks just 13th in that category. National eighth grade reading scores haven’t budged in decades (see story, page 30).

•  The development of a curriculum, led by Anand Marri, Assistant Professor of Social Studies and Education (and now funded by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation), that will teach students the facts, significance and consequences of public policies leading to persistent deficits and a growing national debt. A baseline study that is also part of the initiative has found that current economics education about the federal budget and fiscal policy is virtually non-existent in U.S. high schools. Marri’s curriculum is expected to be used in 100,000 schools nationwide by 2011.
Second, the Investment Fund backs ideas that bring together TC faculty from across disciplines. For James, this focus relates closely to the first.

“Instead of thinking about our traditional disciplines, now we’re thinking that the problem is, say, to cure cancer or reduce obesity,” he says. “By definition, that means we’re becoming more interdisciplinary in our research, because when the goal is to solve a problem by any possible means, you start looking at all the means you have. You consider all the angles and look at all your resources. And we have a lot of resources that complement one another.”

Take high school illiteracy, for example. “Illiteracy at that level isn’t just a reading problem—it’s a science and a math problem or a social studies problem, because high school students must read for content within disciplines that have their own distinct vocabularies and systems of logic,” James says.

Thus the conference on adolescent literacy that Dolores Perin, Professor of Psychology and Education, convened this past summer backed by money from the Provost’s Investment Fund targeted an audience of 150 science and social studies teachers. The speakers included an expert on remedial education at community colleges, an expert on social policy in the learning sciences and a program officer from an outside funding organization who spoke about what the skills U.S. employers require.

Similarly the symposium on creativity that Margaret Crocco, Professor of Social Studies and Education, will hold next spring will feature a cultural anthropologist; a psychologist who studies jazz and improvisational theater; and a composer of computer music (see story, page 58). This past July, the cover of Newsweek proclaimed an American “creativity crisis.”

Finally, to win backing from the Provost’s Investment Fund, faculty proposals must have the potential to bring back value of some kind to TC. That was why, for example, James awarded a gift of $25,000 to Columbia’s Neurological Institute of New York. A contingent of TC faculty and students from TC’s Neurosciences in Education Program spend significant time there each year. Under the terms of the grant, the graduate students who work at the facility will be able to devote more time to TC projects.

And in another example: A 2007 grant to Associate Professor of Education Celia Oyler and Lecturer Britt Hamre to provide training for teachers in classrooms that integrate students with disabilities has led to the City’s adopting TC measures as part of its official training mechanisms. That, in turn, has led to additional City grant money for TC’s Preservice Program in Elementary Inclusive Education, while bringing about positive change in an institution (New York City’s Department of Education) with which TC works closely. The ultimate goal of the effort is to create an Ed.M. program at TC in Inclusion Facilitation.

A still broader value conferred by the Provost’s Investment Fund itself: The twice-a-year solicitation for grant proposals has given James and TC’s other senior leaders a greater understanding of the faculty’s activities and strengths.

“The voices that can speak about creativity are in more places in this College than I thought,” James says. “They’re not just people in the arts. There are many people in psychology and not just people doing the psychology of creativity. And another area where there’s a very strong group is in educational leadership and social organizational psychology. These people are thinking about creativity day after day. It’s part of their lingua franca.”

With that kind of potential at hand, the application process is geared towards making it as easy as possible for good ideas to receive funding. A request for grant proposals goes out at the beginning of each semester, and faculty can respond in a five-page essay rather than filling out forms as they would for a federal grant. The decision-making is led by James and Assistant Dean Kristine Roome, in consultation with others. “Our intent is to fund as many proposals as possible—it’s not a winners and losers type of thing,” James says. “We actually go back to the ones who are not funded and provide them with advice and technical assistance for how to come back.”

On the other hand, grants have been revoked when recipients take too long to demonstrate progress toward their goals.

“For us in the administration, we want to see something happen in two years. We’re investing money, and we’re impatient to see change,” James says.

Looking ahead, James says he’d like to make the grants system permanent and secure second stage funding as well. “We’d really like that to be a category of funding within a capital campaign for the College,” he says. “If we could come up with a couple of large gifts that could produce some hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for doing this, it would be a good thing for TC. As long as it doesn’t become prescriptive internal funding—an item in department budgets to ‘do innovation.’ It’s got to be about looking for new ideas.”

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