Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

At Valparaiso, the Holistic Department Opens Up New Possibilities for Faculty


In recent decades, the strain of ever-increasing faculty workload has been the source of much angst among college and university professors. Faculty responsibilities have greatly expanded to include a wide range of tasks. “We started a list of all the things faculty are expected to do now that they were not expected to do thirty years ago,” says Rick Gillman, associate provost for faculty affairs and professor of mathematics at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana. “I never thought I’d be involved in recruiting, marketing, fundraising, or be expected to have international partners.” Teaching online courses has also created vast demand for new skill sets, in addition to the traditional areas of scholarship, teaching, and service in which faculty are expected to excel. At Valparaiso, faculty are addressing these challenges and opening up new possibilities for student learning by implementing a new model: the holistic department.

Reforming the Department Model

One attempt to address the problem of an overworked faculty is the implementation of holistic departments. A holistic department emphasizes a more team-oriented approach to departmental organization rather than the traditional hierarchical approach and supports and rewards faculty for contributing to goals at the level of both the institution and the department in ways other than teaching and scholarship.

Valparaiso is now in its second year of implementing the holistic department across campus, after working on the concept with the help of the New American Colleges and Universities (NAC&U). (In partnership with AAC&U's LEAP initiative, NAC&U strives to strengthen their members’ integration of professional studies and liberal arts.) “Our work had become so diversified and increased and creeped into new fields” that faculty members have had to develop entirely new skills without much recognition, says Joseph Bognar, professor of music at Valparaiso. “Faculty work seemed to be getting larger and more encompassing, and there wasn’t anything happening in terms of evaluation that seemed to account for this.” The holistic department model offered Valparaiso a way to both make workloads more equitable and transparent and create a model for evaluations that rewarded work more fairly.

At Valparaiso, each faculty member is now expected to teach an average of eighteen credits and also be responsible for six additional workload credits that result in a deliverable product. Key to the success of the holistic department model is both that eighteen teaching credits is an average for the department and that the other credits must have a deliverable component. In other words, the responsibilities for teaching can be shifted among faculty members within a department. “Instead of saying everybody has to teach eighteen credits, the holistic idea is that the department should be producing an average of eighteen-credit teaching loads per faculty member.” If a more junior member of the department needs to produce more research for tenure and promotion, a more senior faculty member—under less immediate pressure to produce research and publish—can take on more teaching credits. Similarly, if a professor is working on a book or has recently had a child and wants to focus on projects that can be completed remotely, hours can be shifted to accommodate those needs.

Evaluating Evaluations

In the holistic department model, accomplishments beyond teaching, scholarship, and service are prized and faculty members are rewarded during evaluations for their efforts beyond those areas. Valparaiso has added a fourth field—“campus citizenship”—to the traditional triad of teaching, scholarship, and service to recognize work that might not fall under one of those umbrellas. The job of redesigning a department’s website, for example, would fall under the “campus citizenship” umbrella and would also be a project for which a faculty member would receive workload credits rather than teaching credits.

The concept of a project with deliverable results helps solve one of the fundamental problems with how faculty members are evaluated—the fact that much of their work is, essentially, invisible. “If faculty work is not clear and visible and accountable, then the amount of work you can give a faculty member is infinite,” says Gillman. Instituting accountability for projects with tangible outcomes has increased transparency and fairness in evaluation. Emphasizing professional development has also become a significant aspect of faculty evaluations.

Also essential to evaluation was standardizing measures by which courses and projects were counted for teaching and workload credits. Bognar notes that in the music department, one-on-one studio instruction is fairly common, whereas an economics or literature course generally has a very different style of instruction. Creating a system in which different styles of courses and instruction were comparable was critical for a better understanding of how work was being performed and divided across departments. Though both Gillman and Bognar note that the process wasn’t easy, Gillman considers it “a linchpin” in helping faculty members understand their own work and the work of other departments.

Opening Doors to Student Learning

A revamped evaluation system also contributes to improved student learning, says Nancy Hensel, president of the New American Colleges and Universities. In the traditional evaluation process, professors are not rewarded for spending time with students outside of class—supervising undergraduate research or internships, mentoring, or taking part in other high-impact practices. “Valuing all of the work that faculty members do with students during the evaluation process encourages faculty to do more and honors what they’ve done,” says Hensel. Furthermore, the increased transparency of holistic departments and their accompanying evaluation give faculty members the freedom to take risks that might otherwise be discouraged. Holistic departments, and their evaluations, allow faculty “to be more innovative—they can talk things over with peers in their department and ask, ‘How can I improve?’” says Hensel. These reforms benefit students by creating an environment in which faculty members are able to try out new classroom techniques and take on more outside-the-classroom learning experiences without fear of being penalized during evaluations. Although the holistic department is only in its second year of implementation at Valparaiso, the university hopes that the change will support student learning.

What many value most about the holistic department is the freedom it gives to each individual department to make decisions about what works best for its faculty. “One of the benefits of the holistic department is that when it’s working well it’s turning over a lot of that decision making and autonomy to the department so they can have the freedom to maneuver within it to suit their individual disciplinary needs,” says Bognar. “One-size institutional definitions or structures don’t always trickle down to the department level well, so we want to maintain a system that gives departments the right amount of autonomy in order to be effective in the system.”

Valparaiso University