Stretched Too Thin: An Unfortunate Reality for Global Health Faculty Directors

To provide the most meaningful undergraduate global health education possible, academic institutions have consistently expanded high-impact practices, particularly in areas related to global experiential learning, civic engagement, and undergraduate research. While programs in these three domains can be crucial to student learning, they are not without cost.

The workload challenges that many faculty face, often related to the competing priorities of teaching, research, and professional development, have been much discussed in the literature. However, what has been less discussed is the impact on faculty directors of supporting and managing global experiential learning, civic engagement, and undergraduate research programs. Faculty who serve as global health program directors are often expected to maintain their primary responsibilities, such as scholarship and teaching within their disciplinary homes, while also developing and executing excellent programs. Faculty directors who oversee students engaged in global education, civic engagement, undergraduate research, and other high-impact programming are responsible for ensuring sustainable, measurable student success by keeping up with and applying the latest guidelines, frameworks, and recommendations. However, these multiple and disparate responsibilities often prevent faculty from developing strong expertise in any one area. Institutions may have support staff and offices to assist with some of these activities, which can relieve a portion of the workload for faculty but also inadvertently create additional burdens in added bureaucracy. To address these challenges, institutions should invest strategically in high-impact programs by building sustainable structures to support them, providing the faculty time required to lead these programs, and rewarding faculty and staff for their efforts.

The Three Domains: Global Learning, Civic Engagement, and Undergraduate Research

The benefits of global experiential learning to students, faculty, and institutions have been discussed extensively (e.g., Altbach, Reisberg, and Rumbley 2009). Researchers have also highlighted the burdens on faculty that develop international or domestic experiential learning programs to advance global education, while recognizing challenges that range from a lack of administrative support, time, and reward, to the pressures that may force faculty to deprioritize their current research (Kelsey and Dormody 1995; Andreasen 2003; Green 2003, 2007; Dewey and Duff 2009). While acknowledging the critical role that faculty play in internationalization efforts, Hudzik (2011) argues that internationalization poses challenges for faculty, related to, but not limited to, the need to expand knowledge areas, experience, curriculum, and student support.

Institutions of higher education have also made civic engagement a priority, and these institutions lean heavily upon faculty for leadership in this area (Holland and Gelmon 1998), particularly in forging community partnerships. Alongside these challenges, there is consensus in the literature that faculty are crucial to the sustainability of experiential learning; community engagement (Cox and Seifer 2005; Bandy, n.d.); and internationalization efforts (Andreasen 2003; Green 2007; Dewey and Duff 2009; Hudzik 2011), as well as to achieving curricular transformation (Allan and Estler 2005; Green 2007; Raby 2007; Schuerholz-Lehr et al. 2007; Niehaus and Williams 2016). Even though faculty may face obstacles often related to the activities already competing for their time and attention (Cox and Seifer 2005; Bandy, n.d.) as they strive to support civic engagement programs such as service learning (Hammond 1994; Ward 1996, 1998; Bringle and Hatcher 2000; Abes, Jackson, and Jones 2002), some researchers contend that faculty are the most important element to the implementation and support of these programs institutionally (Ward 1996, 1998; Abes, Jackson, and Jones 2002).

As with global learning and community partnerships, undergraduate research programs offer benefits to students, faculty, and the institution (Seymour et al. 2004; Lopatto 2004, 2007; Russell, Hancock, and McCullough 2007; Petrella and Jung 2008) but again come with costs. Faculty report spending 14 percent of their time mentoring and training students in student/faculty research efforts (Rockwell 2009). This time commitment competes with faculty members’ independent research, teaching, and service responsibilities and presents an even greater hurdle for faculty who direct additional learning programs. This pressure on faculty is intensified in colleges and universities that have not yet instituted equitable ways to incentivize and recognize these high-impact practices within or in addition to traditional tenure and review processes.

Beyond the well-trod woes of workload, institutions face additional challenges, such as establishing effective faculty development, training, and program management. Although professional organizations such as the Association of International Educators, the Consortium of Universities for Global Health, and the Council on Undergraduate Research provide thought leadership and resources for the three domains of global learning, civic engagement, and undergraduate research, keeping up with the work of these organizations requires significant time and effort. Each of these groups, and many others, hosts conferences dedicated to these domains and has published relevant guidelines, toolkits, rubrics, competencies, learning outcomes, assessment tools, and frameworks informing such programs. Relying on program directors to operate across these three domains, while balancing their other responsibilities, seems unreasonable.

Providing Sustainable Support

Institutions continue to encourage faculty to pursue new partnerships, develop curricula, and provide new opportunities to students. While many faculty share an “earnest desire” to provide such experiences (Dean et al. 2015, 14), the level of support for these activities varies considerably across institutions. According to research by the American Council on Education (ACE), 29 percent of the 752 higher education institutions surveyed did not have a central office that oversaw or supported global learning programs. ACE found that 46 percent of these institutions had a single office that administered or oversaw global learning programs as either its sole function or as one of several functions, and 4 percent had more than one office dedicated to administering, managing, and overseeing these programs (Green 2003). Additional studies have found similar variation in the level and structure of institutional support for service learning (Vogel and Seifer 2011).

The importance of programs in these three domains is evident. However, as institutions expand their experiential learning opportunities, they must support them sufficiently and sustainably. Each of the three domains requires intensive faculty involvement to ensure not only that students gain the most that they can from these experiences and that the experiences meet programmatic and degree requirements but also that ethical standards of community engagement and partnerships are met from the perspectives of both the sending and the receiving institutions. Put plainly, these programs require steep investments in human capital, both from the program faculty and support staff.

To provide support, institutions need to invest in strategies that provide for both long-term planning and immediate relief. Institutions must develop organizational structures, institutional support, and sufficient staffing to reflect the value of these high-impact practices. Structural development and income allocation plans take time to develop and require strategies for the long term, but opportunities exist for impactful short-term solutions. For example, tenure and promotion guidelines for faculty and staff must be updated to incentivize and reward activity in these high-impact areas. In addition, faculty credit and workload policies should reflect the time commitments required to direct and support experiential learning programs. Part of this effort will require clear compensation guidelines for program development and community partnership building.

Many institutions are working toward recognizing and accounting for increased workloads associated with engaging community-based partnerships and developing experiential learning courses, beyond that of traditional classroom-based courses (Pfirman 2011). However, this work and the resulting guidelines do not reflect the additive effects of fast-growing programs that require faculty directors to become experts in widely disparate areas. At a minimum, institutions must acknowledge the depth and communicate the value of faculty and staff’s work to ensure robust programming for students. Many universities and colleges have included commitments to providing global training or promoting global citizenship for their students in their mission statements and institutional learning outcomes. Fewer institutions make it a point to reward the faculty who are delivering on those commitments, such as with unit-load allocations, promotions, or increased compensation.

The next step is working toward the long-term goals of sustainably supporting the faculty, staff, and students involved with these interdisciplinary programs and building the necessary structures to maintain them. Faculty development is an important part of most solutions to address faculty burden and successful program execution (Dewey and Duff 2009; Hudzik 2011), and it may also help alleviate the challenges enumerated here. Efforts to support interdisciplinary faculty who serve multiple roles—beyond just those in global health—cover issues ranging from how faculty are hired, structure and location of programs, curricular requirements and staffing, and how instructors and staff are valued and rewarded (Pfirman 2011). Global health programs are in high demand by students, and their interdisciplinary nature—particularly at the undergraduate level—provides institutions with meaningful curricula and cocurricula that meet the liberal arts commitments of many academic institutions as well as the needs of a globalized workforce (Merson 2014; Kerry et al. 2011). Supporting these programs requires strategic investment over the short and long term to ensure continued success for their students, faculty, alumni, and stakeholders.


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Andria E. Rusk is Assistant Professor of Research, Global Health Consortium and Robert Stempel College of Public Health at Florida International University.

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