From the beginning, Georgia Gwinnett College has had a mission of innovation and questioning traditional higher education practices. Launched in 2006, this public four-year liberal arts college has adopted an interdisciplinary approach to education that features a flat organizational structure without academic departments or tenure.
In an interview with Academic Leader, Tom Mundie, founding dean of the School of Science and Technology, talked about the GGC model and how it has played out as the institution grows.
No academic departments
The decision to forgo academic departments was based in part on a review of the literature that shows that “the biggest impediments to [interdisciplinary collaboration] are the silos created by departments. That idea fostered our thinking in building an organizational structure in the absence of academic departments,” Mundie says.
A visible manifestation of the absence of academic departments is in the configuration of faculty offices. “We mix faculty all over campus. A chemistry faculty member might have an office next to an English faculty member next to an IT faculty member. Our philosophy is if you throw multidisciplinary faculty together it’s like a petri dish—things will start to happen. Out of that comes interdisciplinary research projects and proposals for interdisciplinary team-taught courses,” Mundie says.
Proximity is not enough to make interdisciplinary collaboration happen. It also requires hiring faculty who are interested in collaborating across disciplines. “When we’re hiring we’re very intentional in trying to find faculty who are interested in teaching and engaging with students and mentoring students. So the kinds of faculty we draw are very teaching-focused faculty. We talk about the focus on interdisciplinary work during the hiring process, and when people get here they immediately see the differences,” Mundie says.
As the college has grown, some faculty members have voiced concerns that the total mixing of faculty has some disadvantages, even though they like the idea in principle. “Faculty still need to coordinate with their colleagues in their disciplines, so as we’re going to our next level of growth—we’re probably going to grow another 1,200 to 1,500 students next year—we’re going to have a reorientation of offices. One of the things we’ve said is that instead of totally mixing faculty across disciplines, taking a hybrid approach where you have nests of faculty in various disciplines. We might have five biologists together and close to them five historians and so forth, where you get this interaction with colleagues in the disciplines where they have conversations about what’s going on in the program but at the same time being close to and interacting with faculty from other disciplines.”
Discipline-specific decisions still need to be made even without academic departments. The college is administratively flat, which means that faculty members play a larger role in governance than at many institutions. “We have faculty who serve on four, five, or six committees both within the school and institution-wide. That kind of environment, we believe, makes the faculty feel more connected to the institution,” Mundie says.
In addition, each discipline has a group of three faculty members, known as the Council of Professors (COPS), who are elected by peers and serve for two- or three-year (renewable) terms to facilitate the work of the discipline. “It’s a collaborative leadership model. Three people working together is somewhat unusual in most institutions. That’s something we continue to refine every year—what the COPS do. So there’s constant discussion between me and them about what their roles are in the discipline, what they can do, how they can act, and what they need to coordinate with the dean’s office on. That’s just a constant discussion we have every year as we grow and change,” Mundie says.
The School of Science and Technology is administratively flat. It has a dean, two administrative assistants, and full-time faculty who serve as associate and assistant deans. And the lack of academic departments means that the budgeting process is much more centralized than at most institutions. “At many institutions, a departmental budget will be generated partly by how many credit hours the department generates. When you have a model like that it causes a competitive atmosphere between departments. We do budgeting much more centrally, allocating resources and faculty lines based on where students go,” Mundie says. “It’s a central process managed collectively by the deans. The deans have collaboratively agreed to this approach. It’s much more institutionally focused to answer questions about what’s best for the student body as a whole and institution as a whole.”
Multiyear faculty contracts
The founders of GGC questioned the role of tenure in a 21st-century institution and decided that there are compelling reasons for not including it. “We wanted to create an environment in which all faculty are equal participants in the process of governance and in which all faculty have the guarantee of academic freedom as well as multiyear job security. We found that in most systems tenure created a tiered faculty. Tenured faculty had say in certain things, and nontenured faculty did not. And adjunct faculty really didn’t have say in certain things,” Mundie says.
In addition, tenure creates an “arbitrary clock” that is not suitable for all faculty members. Mundie also cites as reasons to look for a different approach to faculty appointments the decreasing percentage of faculty members who have tenure and a growing number of faculty members who work without any job security from year to year.
The solution is a system of multiyear renewable appointments (three years for assistant professors and five years for associate and full professors). Currently, 97 percent of faculty are on multiyear contracts. (Some are hired for a single year to accommodate institutional growth.)
“In the vast majority of cases, faculty find out a year in advance that they are going to be renewed for another appointment, which means that the faculty as a whole have more job security than in a system where some have multiyear job security and others don’t,” Mundie says.
Instead of being evaluated by a department chair or the faculty within a department, faculty administrators evaluate faculty across disciplines. Mundie says faculty prefer this approach to evaluation “because it allows them to have discussions within their disciplines without the person leading the discussion being their evaluator.”
Student engagement is one of the criteria for faculty evaluation (in addition to the traditional teaching, scholarship, and service). As part of student engagement, faculty members are required to serve as mentors for students. “That relationship is very different than that of advisor. It’s not just telling students what classes to take. It’s about being interested in holistic development of students,” Mundie says.
To help faculty mentor students, each faculty member is issued a smartphone. They are required to include the phone number in their syllabi and let students know the best way to communicate with them.
Faculty are not allowed to hold office hours. Rather, students and faculty meet at mutually convenient times.
One of the arguments against multiyear contracts rather than tenure is that it would hinder the ability of the college to recruit excellent faculty members. Mundie says this has not been the case. “Once they come we’ve had very few faculty leave because they wanted to go to a tenure system. We found that multiyear contracts work well for us, and we’ve eliminated the tiered faculty system,” Mundie says.
And a strong academic freedom stance has allayed potential misgivings about a lack of tenure. (To view GGC’s academic freedom statement, see www.ggc.edu/academics/academic-freedom/.)
GGC has grown rapidly: from 118 students in 2006 to 900 in 2007, 1,600 in 2008, 8,000 in 2011, 9,300 in 2012, and 9,800 in 2013. In the next several years the college will likely have 13,000 students. This growth is a challenge to the mission of the institution. It’s one thing to be innovative in a small, new institution. It’s another to maintain that experimental culture as the institution matures and grows and to maintain small class sizes (most classes are capped at 30 or fewer) and low tuition.
Looking to the future, Mundie says that if the college sticks to its mission rather than trying to “raise its visibility,” the innovative spirit will endure. “There have been a lot of problems with institutions that start with a commitment to being teaching colleges and all of a sudden decide to be a research institution and create a huge uproar. We are committed to avoiding that pitfall. There are some great research institutions in the Atlanta region—Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia, Georgia State, Kennesaw State. We don’t need another research institution. We believe that there is a real value in creating an institution that is a great four-year undergraduate teaching institution. When faculty applicants ask, ‘Where is the institution going in the next five years?’ usually I say, ‘We’re changing and modifying the model as we go along, but in a general sense we want to just be a larger version of ourself.’”