I can’t believe it’s been almost a year since I was inaugurated as the 11th president of Teachers College, and almost a year and a half since I started.
In many ways, that seems like a lifetime ago. Back then, though I was a 27-year TC veteran, so much about the College was a revelation to me. I knew a bit of our history … I knew that we were founded by Grace Dodge. I knew about some of our signature accomplishments. I knew quite a bit more about the research in my areas of the economics of education and education policy. I knew that we had ten departments. I knew that we had many programs.
But when it came to the work of most of my accomplished faculty colleagues, the talents and life experiences of our students, and the indispensable roles that our hardworking and dedicated staff played in our success, the truth is, I am still learning every day.
Now, there are many things I enjoy about being the president of TC, but what I like most is the opportunity and privilege to learn about and get to know all of you. And the more I have immersed myself in the life of the College, the more I have come to appreciate the depth and richness of the College’s intellectual community and to admire so many of the thousands of people who come through our doors each day — and tens of thousands more among our alumni.
Indeed, this College abounds in innovative energy and individual excellence in teaching, research, practice, and service.
Our faculty includes gifted teachers and mentors who inspire our talented students. Faculty research continually defines new directions in education, psychology and health — and through our many powerful collaborations with practitioners and policy makers, we are translating our research into practice.
Our faculty, if you remember from the quiz, collectively conduct more than $60 million in sponsored research, publish scores of books and hundreds of peer-reviewed articles and book chapters, and earn dozens of high academic honors, including prestigious awards and election to membership and leadership of learned societies.
To better capture our faculty’s success and productivity, I am happy to announce that the Provost’s Office will be launching a new, improved, and more comprehensive Faculty News and Notes digital report. Featuring more graphics and information, this report will not only spotlight faculty accomplishments, but will also include research grants awarded to faculty.
I am also pleased to report that the College continues to enroll diverse cohorts of accomplished students. Their talents, idealism, and dedication to their future professions and the advancement of the public good invigorate our faculty in their work.
- The developer of an education program to serve Native Americans with diabetes who is enrolled in our Diabetes Education and Management program;
- A Colombian jazz musician and music professor who is taking TC music education courses online so that he can immediately share the takeaways with his own students in Bogotá;
- A 2018 Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate who is now a Politics and Education doctoral student;
- The founders of state dance education organizations in Idaho and Tennessee who are Dance Education doctoral candidates;
- An expert on artificial intelligence who is interested in using robots to help disabled people and is a master’s candidate in Adult Learning and Leadership;
- An internationally ranked squash player who advocates worldwide for women’s participation in sports and is enrolled as a master’s candidate in Kinesiology;
- Two Ph.D. students — one from the Philippines, the other from Saudi Arabia — in our Education for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing program. They plan to return to set up teacher preparation programs in Deaf Education in their respective countries; and
- An aspiring New York City public school teacher who spent a summer teaching in Namibia and is now an Abby O’Neill Fellow.
By so many critically important measures, the state of the College is . But I believe that TC could be much stronger and better still -- and that we must make it so if we want to reach the potential of our ability to contribute significantly to building a better world.
Our challenge, in a nutshell, is this: Our excellence relies to a great degree on the initiative of individual faculty, staff and students.
In one way, that’s great news. Talent, entrepreneurship and the desire and drive to do great things are givens in our community. Individual innovation and creativity are in the DNA of Teachers College.
But in other ways, the playing field isn’t always level. New students, faculty, and staff arrive here with great potential to excel in their chosen fields, with excellence in many areas (or they wouldn’t be here), but often with little experience in others.
Our faculty are great researchers, and some are well-versed in the arts of collaboration, grant-getting, and partnerships with practitioners, but excellent research does not always require those skills. Many faculty are wonderful teachers and mentors, but we all know that higher education does not do enough to prepare future faculty to excel in these roles.
Indeed, many of our faculty members, myself included, were trained when the technology of teaching and the characteristics of students were totally different than they are today. We can do more as a college to address these issues.
I could make similar observations about our students and staff. Many of our students, but not all, thrive in their programs and go on to achieve their scholarly and career goals.
Many of our staff, but not all, are positioned and supported for success in their jobs and for growth in their professional goals.
In short, the College does not yet offer all of our faculty, students, and staff the structure of guidance, support, and incentives to learn and to use all of the skills and practices they need to thrive.
Now: I can’t guarantee optimal success and career outcomes for every faculty member, or every matriculated student, or every member of the staff.
But I know that each and every one here is capable of great things, or you wouldn’t be at Teachers College. And we consider it not only our obligation, but also our privilege to invest in your futures.
I feel strongly about this. I have spent much of my career working with many others to bring a similar outlook to community colleges and other undergraduate institutions.
Twenty five years ago, the goal of community colleges was to significantly expand access to higher education, and they have made great progress toward that goal. But access was not enough. Many students were unable to achieve their goals. The problem was that students, once they were enrolled, were often left on their own to figure out their goals and future pathways, and to find the support and help they needed to succeed. We argued that the college needed to take responsibility for providing an educational structure and a framework of services that would ensure that everyone graduates with the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in work and life.
While I know that the phrase “the new normal” sometimes has negative and even stress-inducing connotations, I want “college-wide excellence for all” to be our new normal.
I know that we’re all committed to the goal of college-wide excellence for all. We are not lacking in good intentions. So, what’s missing? What’s missing are stronger institutional systems to support all our people, so no one’s success is reduced to a matter of chance or to their personal persistence in digging out the help they need.
No one at TC should feel that they are being left to sink or swim on their own, because, beyond a moral imperative, we all benefit when everyone swims, and swims well.
More to the point, we can only solve the world’s great challenges by drawing on the broadest possible range of perspectives and the deepest possible pool of experience and talent.
Perhaps some of you are thinking, “All right, Tom, ‘college-wide excellence for all’ sounds like a nice, lofty goal. But what are you actually doing to achieve that goal?”
What I’d like to do in the remainder of my time today to discuss some of our plans for making the many areas of excellence at TC the standard for all of Teachers College.
The central function of Teacher College is to deliver academic programs that meet the goals of our students. In many cases, we do a great job. But how can we improve?
So, one of our major priorities is to strengthen the management, delivery, quality, and effectiveness of all of our academic programs at the college. TC is a complex institution with 10 departments and about 50 individual programs. This complexity makes the college difficult to manage, since any initiative or policy or practice improvement needs to work through so many units.
What does that mean for 60 of our 160 tenured and tenure-track faculty who also shoulder administrative responsibilities as academic managers? It means they have less time to engage in research and teaching.
We have a simple goal: Reduce the number of faculty managers, and give the fewer dedicated faculty who are running programs and departments more autonomy, professional development, and support. This simplification will give us a structure through which we can encourage initiatives in student mentoring, teaching, program reform, diversification of curriculum, mentoring of junior faculty, and other measures.
We want departments to be hubs of innovation and collaboration, working internally, with other departments and with Provost Rowley to strengthen our teaching, research, and service.
To achieve this, we have initiated a discussion with the faculty about the organization of the college that is designed to reduce the number of departments and to group programs together in such a way as to maximize the chances for collaboration and consolidation.
I realize that this may cause some anxiety, but I want to emphasize that our goal is to reduce the number of faculty managers, not reduce the number of academic support staff.
Consolidation will also enable us to ensure that programs with common or complementary interests — for example, in psychology or teacher education — are working together and seizing opportunities to create powerful synergies. Those productive conversations that we’d all like to see, among faculty members with so much to gain from collaboration, won’t be left to chance or a third-party introduction.
I want to be clear on another point: I recognize the great success that many departments and programs have had under our current departmental structure. I want to build on that success. To use the publishing analogy, this is an edit, not a re-write. And I am confident that the final product will be a much easier and more rewarding read.
Our next priority is to improve our research infrastructure. Funded research has many important benefits. It brings resources to the College, it provides much needed funding for students, it gives rich professional experiences to faculty and particularly to students, it facilitates field work, lab creation, and professional development through enhanced participation in conferences and meetings, it increases our impact on our fields, and it impels us to work to convince others that our work is worthwhile. Research funding per faculty member is also an important element of the ed school rankings.
Now we already have a large volume of funded research, but Provost Rowley and I think that we can increase that amount significantly. Only about half of our faculty secure outside funding. Overall, a small group of centers, institutes and individual researchers accounts for a very significant portion of annual sponsored research awards.
That is why we have spent the past several months laying the groundwork for a research infrastructure initiative that will change this picture. The primary focus of this initiative is to provide faculty with the support that they need both to find funding and to administer their grants when they win.
I am pleased to report that we have already instituted Provostial support for grant coaching, through a program where faculty are able to hire a grant writing professional to walk them through each step of effective grant-writing.
We’ve also established a grant repository — a kind of internal “What Works Clearinghouse” — that gives new and experienced grant writers alike access to examples of successful grant proposals from colleagues.
A new Provost’s Research Advisory Team will be assembled in January to help to further delineate the needs of faculty and increase interdisciplinary research projects.
But these measures are only the beginning. We are initiating a national search for a tenured academic who can serve as Vice Provost for Research. It will be that person’s primary responsibility to strengthen our research infrastructure and increase our research funding.
Strengthening Student Pathways
Exceptional graduate and professional students from all over the world already come to Teachers College for the opportunity to study and work with our outstanding faculty. Strengthening our academic programs and bolstering our research profile will make TC more attractive to an even larger pool of prospective students.
But there’s more we need to do to ensure that that our admitted students enroll here, thrive here, and achieve their research and career goals.
We’re starting by working to increase the amount of financial student support and to make financial aid more effective and transparent.
Over the past 12 years, we have tripled the amount of financial aid awarded each year. Student financial aid remains a priority in our fund raising efforts, which will allow us to offer more generous packages to admitted students. Provost Rowley is also starting a fellowship task force designed to develop policies and practices to help students apply for and win outside fellowships from Spencer, AERA, NSF and other sources.
We also must be transparent about the terms of our financial aid packages. When students receive an offer of admission to TC, they should know up front how much aid is being offered to help them fulfill their degree requirements, not just for the first year as has often been our practice in the past.
As we make TC more competitive for the strongest students, we also need to create clearer and better-supported career pathways for them to become great future scholars, practitioners, and leaders in education, psychology, and health.
To that end, we are doing two things. First, we have relocated most of our student affairs offices and personnel to the first floor of Thorndike, or Thorndike 1, as we call it, with plans for creating a student community hub there. And second, we are working to transform Career Services from an office that primarily has offered tactical assistance to current students … into a comprehensive, full-service operation that not only helps all of our students chart and pursue pathways to rewarding work and careers, but also connects them to our alumni network as a recruiting and mentoring resource. We already have begun a nationwide search for an experienced, innovative, and accomplished professional development and career education professional with a proven track record in strategic leadership in this field.
Digital Innovation and the Library
Many of you are aware that there is lots going on our libraries and indeed, our next priority is to make our libraries a more accessible and effective asset for teaching and learning and to turn the fourth and fifth floors Russell Hall into dynamic center for digital pedagogy and research.
One of the true crown jewels of Teachers College is our Gottesman Libraries. The library is an exceptional facility with cutting-edge resources, a staff of highly talented professionals, and the phenomenal multimedia teaching and learning capabilities of the Smith Learning Theater. It is also a popular place to engage in group and individual study.
Our goals are to make the Library even more useful and relevant for everyone at TC, so our Provost, Stephanie Rowley, is working with faculty and library staff to develop a vision of improved service, in which everyone who enters those floors should be able to get what they need, whether it ultimately comes from our own shelves or across the street at Columbia or elsewhere in the city.
The Smith Learning Theater, and Ed Lab have been deployed to good effect in many instances. For example, the Smith Learning Theater has hosted a steady stream of innovative activities, including the recent STEAMnasium program that showcased digital pedagogical tools to an audience of teachers, parents, and students.
Ed Lab also has achieved notable successes with projects that contribute to the advancement of education writ large, such as a virtual, multimedia hub for TC’s “Teaching the Levees” curriculum about Hurricane Katrina.
But these only scratch the surface of TC’s involvement and potential with new technology. Indeed we have many classes, labs, and faculty projects that develop and use technology resources in teaching and learning. We are developing a center that will be located in Russell that will bring together and help coordinate and publicize this multitude of activities and technological assets. This center will include the functions and staff of the Office of Digital Learning. This will be a resource for faculty and students who want to learn how to use technology in their teaching. But this center will also carry out research that will determine the most effective approaches to digital and technology-based instruction.
We will be announcing concrete proposals both for the library as well as for our center on digital pedagogy and innovation in the next two months, so stay tuned.
Staff Professional Development
Next, we are working to make “excellence for all” a reality that serves and benefits our dedicated TC staff. It’s an old analogy, but this organization is very definitely a three-legged stool, with faculty, students and staff as the three legs. Take any of the three away, and the stool collapses. For TC to flourish, we need our staff employees to have the support that they need and to enjoy opportunities for professional growth and development that enable them to flourish
To that end, under the leadership of JoAnne Williams, our relatively new Vice President for Finance and Administration, Lisa Seales, our new Associate Vice President for Human Resources will be rethinking our system for promoting wellness and supporting training and professional development. We are looking to create more career-related development opportunities. I am especially happy to announce that we will change our practice on the taxation of tuition remission for courses taken at TC. The taxation of these benefits significantly reduces their value, so starting in January, any coursework at TC that is demonstrably related to an employee’s job will no longer be treated as taxable income.
JoAnne is also working on several systems reforms designed to make our lives easier and our work more effective. These include a new budgeting model that will give us a better sense of how we use our resources and how we should plan for the future, and simplification of some of our favorite administrative systems such as PageUp and ChromeRiver.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Finally, in terms of promoting academic excellence and providing thoughtful institutional support for individual and collective achievement, we must continue to work toward ensuring that everyone who works here … or studies here … or walks through our doors feels safe, respected, and warmly welcome in our community.
In short, our commitment to our sense of community, to diversity, equity and inclusion is one of our highest priorities.
To be sure, the College has made great progress — especially over the past two decades — in creating a more inclusive and equitable environment and more diverse community. The work of several key committees and task forces on Diversity Community, Race and Culture brought about significant changes that have strengthened the College, including, notably, the establishment of what is now the Office of the Vice President for Diversity and Community affairs, led by Janice Robinson.
We have achieved greater diversity in student enrollment and in appointments and promotions for faculty and staff, but we still have much work to do. To that end, we are introducing a Teachers College Diversity Scholarship to help attract students from historically underrepresented groups and low-income students. Furthermore, in the coming weeks and months, Provost Rowley and I will announce new initiatives that will focus on encouraging robust, mutually respectful dialogue, on diversifying the curriculum, on improving inclusive teaching and mentoring practices, and on creating a harassment-free and bias-free institution.
I hope all of you will join with me in making Teachers College the best version of itself by becoming a better, more inclusive community.
In closing, I am mindful that Thanksgiving is around the corner. Now, as TC’s President, I have many reasons for being thankful to all of you. I am thankful for the support, encouragement, and your friendly greetings. I am thankful for ideas and honest and critical feedback you’ve shared, and I plan to create more opportunities for you to continue doing so.
I am especially thankful to have been joined in the last several months by two exceptional partners who are playing crucial roles in all of the work I’ve discussed today: Our new Vice President for Finance and Administration, JoAnne Williams; and our new Provost, Dean of the College, and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Stephanie Rowley. As all of you continue getting to know JoAnne and Stephanie, you will see how fortunate we all are to have them at TC.
But if I had to choose a word that captures what I am most thankful for, it would be dedication --- meaning, your unwavering dedication to Teachers College. I recognize that change can be difficult and even unsettling. Yet, you have remained focused on your work, reflecting your dedication to creating a stronger TC and better future for everyone. And for that, I will always be very grateful. Thank you!