Focusing on the 'Bigger Issues'

Sometimes at a research university, large, pervasive issues hover menacingly, somewhat beyond the reach of official bodies, more daunting than the nitty-gritty of grading policies, class schedules, and transfer of course credits. These "bigger issues" often work against the synergy of a growing university and threaten faculty members' productivity as teachers, scholars, researchers, and artists. How can conscientious academicians get a grip on such elusive matters?

Enter the faculty forums at Indiana University Bloomington. Primarily informal discussion groups focused on pressing issues, these forums serve as "a vehicle for stimulating widespread faculty reflection and discussion about some of the more insistent problems that threaten research and creative activity in higher education [institutions] generally," says James M. Patterson, director of IU's Institute for Advanced Study (IAS). Patterson, who directed similar forums in the mid-1980s sponsored by the Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions, reactivated the forums after taking the helm of the IAS two years ago. To stimulate thinking and discussion before the forums take place, he often distributes a paper by an eminent scholar on the given topic.

Seventeen participants found the first forum in October 1994, on needed reform in graduate education, particularly thought provoking. A second forum on the merits of making organizational adjustments in the university to accommodate changing priorities generated a smaller crowd in March of last year, but it led indirectly to a faculty retreat last October attended by 50 people that generally picked up where the forum had left off. The IAS is planning a third forum, "The University in the Digital Age," for this spring. English Professor Donald J. Gray calls the forums "extremely effective" in serving a need that other university offices or bodies are not meeting. The forum on graduate education brought together representatives from across the campus "whose graduate programs serve different functions," yielding a "remarkable coincidence" of common problems, he says. While there is consensus that the university generally does a credible job of inculcating research and writing, perceptions prevail that it "could do more" to enable graduate students to teach a variety of courses, like ones they might encounter in teaching jobs at smaller universities and colleges, Gray notes.

Myrtle Scott, a professor of educational psychology, was elated to find an atmosphere of "free and open discussion," without glaring indications that participants represented only vested interests. That was refreshing, she states, considering that society is seemingly "adrift toward parochialism." There was a strong sense of tackling issues for the common good, a phrase that seemed to color discussions, she notes.

Without legislative powers, the forums may not be able to effect wholesale changes, Gray admits, but he thinks participants will take renewed awareness back to their departments and initiate their own measures. Patterson says the forums fill a gap and help broaden faculty involvement in the institute. By bringing together diverse faculty, then distributing summaries of the discussions to 300 additional faculty members, he hopes to stimulate dialogue where it is needed most.

--Bob Baird