April 20, 2011

Planning is paramount as lean times change role of department chair

A forum from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m., Thursday, May 12, in Haggett Hall for chairs and administrators will allow them to share examples of how they are responding to the challenges of tight budgets. Participants are encouraged to bring examples of challenges they are facing to discuss with their peers.

The forum will be repeated from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m, May 25, in Haggett Hall. Both are hosted by the Two Years/Two Decades (2y2d) project and ADVANCE.

In a few short years, the world of department chairs has changed dramatically. In the coming decade, most departments are not likely to grow – in fact, they are likely to shrink. Financial resources derived from state sources (including tuition) are not likely to grow. Research funding will be increasingly competitive.

This has made planning a paramount need, so that units can decide thoughtfully on their future areas of emphasis. For any plan to work, it needs broad support from faculty and staff. And because the future is hard to predict, the plan must be flexible and adaptive.

This is what Sheri Mizumori has learned since she became chair of the Psychology Department in July 2008, just months before the world changed. Her first task was to bring into balance an operating budget that was functioning in the red. It was clear that expenses had to be reduced, new revenue sources identified, and a strategic plan worked out for moving ahead with limited resources. By fall 2008, it was also clear that this situation was no longer specific to psychology

Through a series of discussions, it became evident that faculty identified strongly with one of eight disciplinary (and hence administrative) areas within the department. “Our faculty are incredibly productive and impactful in their research,” says Mizumori.  However, she also found that faculty often had little idea what many of their colleagues research was about – this at a time when funding agencies increasingly were demanding proposals that cut across specialty boundaries.  Mizumori met with the area coordinators within the department to hear about their vision for the next five years, followed by a departmental retreat. And a plan began to take shape.

Sheri Mizumori

Sheri Mizumori

“Our faculty and staff care deeply about this department,” she says. “It is a characteristic of the department that we think positively about our future. Weve made decisions together, in a way that is as transparent as possible. We know were going into uncharted territory, but we have lots of people with good ideas. Their participation has made the situation of being chair in these times easier”

Mizumori concluded that the department needed to make some strategic investments in areas that could provide opportunities in the future. “Fortunately, I was able to identify some resources that would allow us to explore some new interdisciplinary research initiatives,” she says.

One initiative that was ready for department investment was what has become the Center for Child and Family Well-Being, whose members had already begun organizing within the department and also had talked with people working in complementary fields in other colleges.  “I had been meeting with colleagues across campus to build more collaboration over issues of children and families,” says Professor Lili Lengua, who heads the center. “We identified shared facilities, equipment and support that would be desirable for all of us.”

In what could be viewed as a pilot effort, some of the centers researchers have been able to use shared EEG equipment which the department had purchased.  This already has enabled Lengua and Associate Professor Jessica Sommerville to compete successfully for a federal stimulus grant. “We wouldnt have been able to secure that grant without this equipment,” Lengua says.

“Over the 18 months since the equipment was acquired, enough grants have been received to pay the EEG technicians salary,” Sommerville says. “Theres also a ‘scientific savings, in addition to financial efficiency: The shared equipment forces us to interact. We consult over best practices more quickly than we would if we were using our own equipment. We have deeper scientific discussions with colleagues. Its been tremendously beneficial.”

The center will be acquiring new, shared space as well as equipment and some staff support. Based on their initial experience, Lengua, Sommerville and other center affiliates are hopeful that this new arrangement will lead to fruitful collaborations and additional grant opportunities. In addition, the new center should make it easier for faculty to bring research into action within the local community.

“By investing in interdisciplinary centers or research groups for the future, we are trying to create a model where this shared equipment and staff can be self-sustaining through grants,” Mizumori says.

Another interdisciplinary research focus is in an earlier stage of development, and it focuses on diversity science, which seeks to understand the impact of diversity on psychological well being. Such research includes the study of individual differences in mental and physical health among underprivileged and underrepresented groups both nationally and internationally. The departments expertise in this area was featured this year in a series of public lectures, the Edwards Lectures.

At that time, faculty created an opportunity to build bridges with members of the community concerned about these issues. “The interactions with the community have continued,” Mizumori says, “and the community and faculty are eager to work towards the next steps to studying these problems.” She is hopeful that these interactions will develop into joint projects that will not only build connections between research teams and the community, but will also be of interest to funders.

Psychology faculty are focused on understanding human behavior, and a growing number are interested in how neuroscience can help them address this from a biological perspective. But they arent alone in that interest: It turns out the UW has strong neuroscience research across a range of departments.  “For example, many of our faculty have a strong interest in addictive behavior. We find people with complementary interests in the cellular basis for this behavior in other departments such as pharmacology, as well as other departments,” she says.

So, together with two other chairs of departments with neuroscience research, the Psychology Department is taking the lead in creating a mechanism for information exchange and collaboration in what could be called a “virtual research center.” In addition to facilitating innovative research, this kind of exchange could lead to some instructional efficiencies. “Weve found there are at least two neuroscience courses that cover about 75 percent of the same material,” Mizumori says. “It would be fun to bring these groups together to teach a common course, and in this way reduce redundancy.”

Overall, she says, the faculty are aware that the future will require them to be nimble in adapting their research ventures to changing federal priorities. Strong connections with other groups, both within the department and across campus provide a firmer basis for adaptation. “Weve also learned we need to be more public about what were doing, through such mechanisms as the Edwards Lectures and other public forums, so that we can identify partners for future research.”

Mizumori regards these initiatives as experiments, only some of which may gain traction and become self-supporting. “Our biggest challenge is to forge ahead in new, interd
isciplinary areas while maintaining our strength in the core training required for undergraduates and graduate students. Its a big culture change for faculty.”

Mizumoris first crucial task on becoming chair was to bring her budget back in balance. One early discovery was that a key laboratory course for undergraduates was costing much more than was sustainable. So Professor Jaime Diaz agreed to work on the problem. The department purchased some simple student-friendly equipment with college teaching innovation funds, and Diaz developed experiments that were less costly but still met pedagogical standards. Lab fees were raised somewhat. The result: the course now bears its own weight financially, and the sections have filled up quickly, suggesting students like the change, too.

Mizumori says the department had not thought of itself as entrepreneurial, until recently. “Were not engineers. We dont create products.” But psychology faculty do have unique strengths in assessing behaviors, and it turns out there is a need for software in this area, both within universities and also at mental health agencies.

So the departments clinic director, Corey Fagan, and media expert Jon Hauser have spearheaded an effort, supported by grants from the Center for Commercialization and the Washington Research Foundation, to create a product that could be marketable. The department contributed travel funds for Fagan to attend national meetings where she let colleagues know that the UW is about to offer this valuable tool for assessing mental health treatment outcomes. “We think we have a product that not only has strong market potential, but it will also benefit society tremendously,” says Mizumori. “If this is successful, it could be a model for future products, because other faculty have created software that could complement this first one but for different clinical settings.”

As Mizumori and her colleagues look to the future, they are exploring a number of additional areas, such as distance learning and certificate programs, as well as fee-based seminars and masters programs. Collectively, these measures may cushion the effect of additional cutbacks in state funds, but not without pain.  ”Our staff is working incredibly hard as administrative demands increase while our ability to retain staff is reduced,” she says.

You can see a video describing the changes in the Psychology Department.