Research News

LEAD Center helping faculty improve productivity

March 30, 2015
by Paul Baker

University administrators specialize in administration; scientists specialize in research; teaching staff specialize in teaching. Few have training in how to evaluate the success of their work objectively, although there’s always room for improving work practices.

That’s where professional evaluators come in. Their expertise helps administrators, scientists and teaching staff measure their success, find room for improvement and implement change. And, in an age of accountability in higher education, federal grants often require their services.

A recent addition to the Wisconsin Center for Education Research’s project portfolio is the LEAD Center, a higher education evaluation team directed by Christine Pribbenow. WCER is housed within UW-Madison’s School of Education.

Pribbenow brings years of experience helping people improve their performance in fields as diverse as biomedical research, genomics education for undergraduates, biology instruction, and gender and racial awareness. Her team serves projects across the UW-Madison campus, the state of Wisconsin and nationally.

Pribbenow
Christine Pribbenow brings years of experience to
helping people improve their performance in a
range of diverse fields.
Since 2005 Pribbenow has evaluated an innovative program that assists faculty and staff who meet personal or professional crises of a magnitude that threatens their continued research work at UW-Madison. Such events can be particularly devastating if they come at a critical career juncture, such as tenure review. The Office of the Provost sends an announcement to faculty approximately one month prior to application due dates, two or three times per year.

The Vilas Life Cycle Professorship (VLCP) is funded by the Vilas Trust, established over 100 years ago by William F. Vilas, a professor of law and university regent. Funds from the Vilas Trust are earmarked to support research.

The VLCP annually awards about $280,000 to 12 faculty members, based on 2007-2012 averaged award amounts. Individual awards are capped at $30,000 and they last one year. The Vilas Trust stipulates that funds cannot be used for faculty salaries—only for direct research costs, including student assistants, lab equipment and research travel.

Although the program is open to all faculty and permanent principal investigators, women faculty apply for and receive the grants in greater proportion than their presence in the faculty. This likely reflects the fact that, despite substantial changes in family and work over the past 50 years, the responsibility for managing these responsibilities still rests most heavily on women.

Pribbenow says faculty from racial and ethnic minority groups also apply for and receive grants in slightly greater proportion to their presence on the faculty.  Assistant professors are much more likely than faculty at higher ranks to apply for and receive funding.

The types of “life events” that disrupt a faculty member’s research typically include a crisis in personal health, a child’s health, a spouse or partner’s health and complications from childbirth. Or, even more challenging, they experience multiple crises that occur simultaneously.

The most common kind of “critical career juncture” listed in applications is the tenure process. Faculty in their third-to-fifth year on the tenure clock are especially vulnerable when a research setback occurs. These cases receive priority for funding. Early in the tenure process, faculty may have time to get back on track following a life crisis, especially if they have startup funds available, or take a tenure clock extension.

Associate and full professors often cite a “loss of momentum” or a missed grant deadline that will lead to a layoff or loss of valuable staff, further reducing the chances that future grant applications will be successful. They foresee a negative spiral of events that could occur if not interrupted immediately.

For tenured professors, the critical career junctures most often cited are a need to revive stalled research momentum, complete a project, re-establish funding or change research focus. When life events occur at these times, they  could be damage the research trajectories of associate and full professors.

The grants often support the faculty’s research teams, including academic staff, graduate and undergraduate students, and postdoctoral researchers. In the biological sciences, lab managers and research specialists are the most commonly requested resource, while other disciplines more often ask for graduate student support.

Faculty retention and productivity

One goal of any program designed to improve work/life management in the university is increased faculty retention. The loss of a faculty member is expensive for institutions, both financially and for other costs such as the loss of students or mentors. Losing one’s position is certainly disruptive to the career of a faculty member who leaves under circumstances related to a lack of productivity. Recipients of VLCP grants report that the receipt of the grant was a determining factor in their decision to stay at UW-Madison.

Many faculty use their VLCP award to position themselves for future grant funding. Recipients write about how even a small amount of VLCP funding can leverage much higher amounts in grants from outside sources. As one applicant wrote, “If I get my grant, it’s going to pay off for the university several fold over.”

Another recipient wrote, “I think my tenure application was at risk because the pace of my scholarship had slowed down. The combination of this grant and an extension of my tenure clock has made a tremendous difference in my scholarship quality and quantity. I go up for tenure soon.  I feel much better about my prospects.” This recipient did receive tenure.

Pribbenow points out that helping faculty reinvigorate their research programs is a boon to the university not only because of the increased funding, but also because it increases the overall productivity of the faculty. One applicant said, “Investment in our careers at, or after, a point of crisis is both humane and efficient in terms of generating research progress and publications, attracting outside funds, and stabilizing and accelerating professional development. It is more efficient than losing faculty members who leave, or who become non-productive in research terms, then trying to refill tenure lines.”

Words of thanks

Recipients have voiced consistent themes over the years. They use words like “lifesaver” “one of a kind” “totally unique” “lifeline” “humane” “immensely valuable” “fantastic” and “absolutely essential”. Program applicants often express gratefulness that the program exists, whether they receive funding or not.

“I wish the UW talked about this program more,” said another. “It’s a selling point for our culture and an indication of the way that a progressive workplace can treat women if it wants to! Not that anybody, male or female, wants to be in a situation where they need the help this program gives – but lightning can and does strike us all.“

Pribbenow’s decade-long evaluation of the Vilas Life Cycle Professorship program shows the importance of evaluative work to the continued success of a program.  Before the Vilas Trust invested in this program, a pilot program was implemented, using funds from the National Science Foundation.  Pribbenow’s evaluation of the pilot program showed that the funds did improve faculty research productivity. That, in turn, encouraged the Vilas Trust to fund the program.

This evaluation work uses multiple research methods and, as rigorous research, is published in peer-reviewed journals and books.  This is what clients of the new LEAD Center can expect.

The VLCP will be described more fully in “Life Happens:  The Vilas Life Cycle Professorship Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.”  In Family Friendly Policies and Practices in Academe (Catherine R. Solomon and Erin K. Anderson, Eds.)  Washington DC: Lexington Books.