32 So Our Students Can Do Their Best Work | Jennifer Ackil

Whereas some set a very intentional path toward leadership, that has not been the case for me. Rather as my career has evolved, various opportunities have arisen that have afforded me the chance step forward to serve as a leader. To this end, my most visible leadership positions on campus have included chairing the Psychology Department, serving as Co-director of the John S. Kendall Center for Engaged Learning, chairing the Faculty Development Committee, and serving as the faculty representative on the Core Planning Committee for the new academic building. In each of these roles, I have done my best to positively impact those I have served with the goal in all cases, to enhance and create opportunities for my colleagues and our students to do their best work. I will discuss in turn some of my endeavors in this regard for each of the leadership positions I have held.

Chair, Department of Psychology. Serving as interim chair of the Department of Psychology (January-June,2006) gave me a window into the varied expectations we have for chairpersons on our campus. In addition to the everyday responsibilities that come with this position, I took very seriously the mentoring and evaluation of untenured and adjunct members of our department, conducting careful reviews and summarizing my evaluations for each. Moreover, I initiated the Department’s ten-year evaluation, calling preliminary meetings with my department colleagues to discuss this process and inviting two off-campus reviewers to participate in our review.

As the current chair of the Department, I have had the opportunity to engage in a variety of tasks that directly impact our department and as a consequence, the greater college community. For example, I helped my department capitalize on the Provost’s call for a departmental strategic plan by organizing numerous meetings aimed at discussing various aspects of the department’s mission, responsibility, and long-term vision. With respect for heavy student demands on my faculty colleagues’ time, I worked hard to balance efficiency and productivity with an atmosphere that afforded the opportunity for everyone’s voice to be heard. The result is a strategic plan that has and will continue to serve us well and in which all members of the department can take proud ownership.

That the new academic building has been in the planning stages for over six years created a unique leadership challenge for me. While planning for new department space can be exciting and energizing, maintaining optimism in the face of setbacks and lack of forward movement for such a long time can be difficult. Thus, striking a balance between optimism and reality was paramount. To this end, I have since beginning my role on the new building committee (fall 2004), kept my colleagues informed of all communication and involved in all aspects of planning. Most recently this has included steering our collective vision for creating research laboratory space that will allow us to each continue our own program of research, while simultaneously enhancing collaboration with each other and with students. The result of many hours of discussion is a space that when realized has the potential to transform psychology at Gustavus.

While curricular discussions are ongoing in our department, I have attempted to bring several issues to the fore during my leadership in the department. First, I have attempted to facilitate the creation of a new framework for our honors psychology students. To this end, we have solidified our collective understanding of the expectations we have for our honors program and have put in place a structure that both communicates these expectations to students and enhances our ability to supervise their research. Second, recognizing our collective concern for a growing number of students who appear to be struggling in our introductory and 200-level classes, I have suggested that we engage in discussions about how best to address this potential problem. Whereas we have only touched on this issue to date, my intention is to create opportunities for us to address this more fully in the spring semester. Early discussion has included several avenues to explore including recruiting student assistance (as tutors, and mentors), remedial work in the introductory course, and creating “study skill” workshops for struggling students based on psychological research findings. Third, as a result of our careful strategic planning and in response to a recent vacancy in our department, I am in the process of directing a search for a new tenure track cognitive psychologist. Moreover, I have been intentional in thinking about our involvement in the interdisciplinary neuroscience program having held discussions about possibilities with the chairs of Biology, the Associate Dean, and Neuroscience faculty in response to disciplinary trends and growing student interest at Gustavus.

With all of these tasks in mind, I strive to lead in a manner that continues to nurture the foundation of collegiality so skillfully created by department chairs that came before me. Although we are a department that includes a variety of backgrounds and often very divergent views, there is a level of respect for one another that supports productive conversations that can be simultaneously frank and collegial. In addition to advocating for my faculty colleagues and students and providing the things they need to do their best work, maintaining this atmosphere is among one of the greatest responsibilities I have as department chair.

Co-Director, John S. Kendall Center for Engaged Learning. Working as Co-Director of the John S. Kendall Center for Engaged Learning (2007-2008) was an opportunity that allowed me to lead beyond the confines of my department. In addition to the day-to-day tasks required of this role, there were several initiatives of which I am proud to have been a part. For example, showcasing faculty accomplishments was a goal I brought to this role. To this end, Co-Director Laura Behling and I created from the ground up, the first ever faculty achievement publication, Gustavus, Research, Scholarship, and Creativity 2006 & 2007. Having the opportunity to learn of our colleagues’ work through their travel applications and various small grant initiatives, Laura and I hoped that this publication would serve as a first step toward raising awareness of the great scholarly and creative work of our faculty. That the publication appears to be a regular addition to our community is a source of pride. In an attempt to foster collaboration and conversation across disciplines, we created a variety of new opportunities for faculty to talk to one another about a variety of issues of mutual concern. For instance, in response to faculty need for support in instructional technology, the Teachers’ Talking Technology series was created to provide a forum for our colleagues to share with one another their expertise in classroom technology. In addition, we provided the opportunity for faculty to gather in January to discuss books of common interest, and created new workshops that among other things, focused on writing letters of recommendation, discipline specific publication processes, and Fulbright scholarship opportunities. We also took on sole responsibility for the new faculty mentoring program (previously shared with the Dean’s office and the Center for Vocational Reflection), creating and leading biweekly discussions on a host of topics (e.g., college service, teaching evaluations) and connecting new faculty with experienced faculty mentors across the College. While many of these opportunities were aimed at addressing specific professional needs of the faculty, we were also sympathetic to our faculty’s need to connect with one another in less formal ways. To this end we initiated the First and Final Faculty Socials with an eye toward simply providing occasions to nurture existing connections with one another and provide an opportunity to establish new ones.

Whereas learning about the ongoing scholarly and pedagogical efforts of colleagues was immensely inspiring, it also in many instances highlighted the need for financial support. To this end, we advocated for several initiatives aimed at securing or increasing funds to enhance faculty scholarly and teaching endeavors. It is worth noting that an increase in faculty travel awards for those traveling to conferences to present their work was one area where we were successful in this regard. In addition, we initiated the first course development grants in recent history with the intent of tying faculty initiatives in the classroom to two strategic initiatives (leadership, international and cultural competence). That the Kendall Center remains busy in its efforts to support faculty scholarship and teaching is clear. That I was able to contribute to these efforts during my time as Co-Director was a privilege.

Chair, Faculty Development Committee. Having served for five years as an elected member of the Faculty Development Committee I had the opportunity to engage in a variety of activities aimed at creating opportunities for faculty across the campus to do their best work. Early on, this work included discussion of the need for a permanent coordinator of faculty development, a need for flexibility in meeting faculty development needs, and included an external review of the faculty development program. During the three semesters’ I chaired this committee there was a new faculty development center in place (now the Kendall Center) with a faculty coordinator.

Other Leadership. That I have on occasion served as a leader in less visible roles is also important to note. To this end I served as a founding member of the self-organized group of faculty who worked to initiate the first annual Gustavus Celebration of Creative Inquiry. This group emerged from a Kendall Center summer workshop and worked from the ground up to create what has become a regular venue for students and faculty to come together to celebrated students’ accomplishments across the College. Prior to this, I worked on behalf of my department to organize the first Gustavus Psychology Symposium. This forum has since become a celebrated annual event in our department that allows students to share their research with one another in service of giving them presentation experience and inspiring younger students to engage in research projects of their own.

Summary. In short, I have been privileged to serve in several leadership positions across the College. Whereas several of these positions are clearly defined by our college governance structure (department chair, co-director of Kendall Center, chair of the Faculty Development Committee, faculty representative on core planning committee for the academic building) others are less visible but arguably no less important. I look forward to continuing to serve as a vigilant leader in our community both in formal roles and behind the scenes.