May 3, 2016 | By Chuck Carlson
Vicki Baker, associate professor of economics and management, finds herself heading in the very nebulous direction of academia in which she has taken such an interest over the years.
She is wrapping up her ninth year of teaching at Albion College, and the academic world she entered into from graduate school is changing. So are the students. So are the tools that she, and many others like her, need to do their jobs.
"I'm mid-career," Baker said, with a tinge of pride and, perhaps, uncertainty.
And it's for that reason that Baker, along with two professors on opposite sides of the country—Laura Lunsford, an associate professor of psychology from the University of Arizona, and Meghan Pifer, an assistant professor of higher education at Widener University in Pennsylvania—are studying the needs and concerns of mid-career educators at liberal arts colleges.
Their research will be enhanced markedly thanks to a $50,000 grant Baker and her colleagues received recently from the Henry Luce Foundation.
"At liberal arts colleges, you are a teacher, an advisor, a recruiter, a mentor—things you aren't really trained for in graduate school," Baker said.
The result is that many educators at liberal arts schools are entering the midpoint of their academic careers unprepared for a world that has changed almost before their eyes. The demands, the technology and the belief among some that a liberal arts education isn't practical in today's world have left them wondering where to go from here.
Baker, Lunsford and Pifer hope to help those faculty members with that conundrum in the form of a leadership development institute, mentoring support and a book the three are writing to confront faculty development priorities at liberal arts and other small colleges.
With the backing of the administrations from the 13 institutions comprising the Great Lakes Colleges Association (of which Albion is a member), the grant will kick off starting in September and end in June 2017.
"Our work to date has identified a need to study and address this issue," said Baker.
She and her colleagues have been researching the topic for nearly three years, and that work has focused on the challenges and needed supports across career stages in the professoriate at liberal arts schools.
What they discovered in their research was that the needs and concerns of faculty members in the middle of their careers were falling through the cracks.
"We saw that mid-career professors don't get a lot of attention," Baker said.
That's where they decided to focus their work.
Now, with the help of the Luce grant (previously the research had been funded in part by Albion's Hewlett-Mellon Fund for faculty development), the trio will engage 20 mid-career faculty members in a yearlong leadership development experience in Ann Arbor to assess where they are in their careers and determine the kinds of support they need to do their jobs more completely.
"Then we'll look at opportunities for the next stage," Baker said. "This will allow us to see what the next step is."
The overall study and subsequent recommendations will appear in a book Baker and her colleagues are writing, titled Developing Faculty in Liberal Arts Colleges: Aligning Individual Needs and Organizational Goals. A draft of the book, to be published by Rutgers University Press, is due this fall with publication scheduled for 2017, Baker said.
In the end, Baker believes the grant and the work supported by the grant will provide an opportunity to study a little understood but increasingly important aspect of the faculty career at liberal arts institutions.
"I'm passionate about this," she said. "We can help these people."