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Centers for Teaching and Learning, Academic Change, and the Institutional Zeitgeist

By C. Edward Watson

March 1, 2018

Among the central domains of discussion in higher education today is the notion of change. How do we respond to emerging challenges? How do we increase the quality of our institutions? How do we do better by our students? Answers to these questions don’t come easily; however, one key component of change is faculty. As change discussions in higher education accelerated two decades ago, it was recognized that the primary means through which institutions change is via the innovation, pedagogy, creativity, and scholarship of its faculty.1 This is why faculty development represents an important opportunity for change in higher education and why most institutions have invested in faculty development centers and/or centers for teaching and learning (CTLs) of one sort or another.

As you look across the higher education landscape and examine CTLs, you might create a false dichotomy regarding two “types” of centers. There are those that function as faculty entitlements, providing a safe space for faculty to talk about teaching and other concerns somewhat outside of the confines of the day-to-day structures of the institution, and there are CTLs that function as true agents of change, clearly connected to the institution’s mission and the home of core initiatives that push academic innovation forward. In truth, the best CTLs embrace both ends of this spectrum. CTLs must be seen as advocates for faculty and the grassroots challenges they face each day. This enables centers to build true social capital with faculty across their campus. This needs to be coupled with a “lean into the wind” strategic orientation that positions a center not on the margins of the institution’s academic goals and initiatives, but as central to how the institution achieves those goals. In truth, it’s a challenging positioning that’s not easy for CTL directors to achieve, and it sometimes presents difficult situations to negotiate, but sincerely embracing all constituents, including faculty and senior leadership, best positions CTLs for relevancy and to foster change.

Recognizing the change agency role of faculty development, senior leaders should work to leverage CTLs to accomplish academic change and consider models that incentivize or reward broad faculty participation. One such example can be seen in how Virginia Tech launched its Faculty Development Institute (FDI) in 1993. At that time, there was an economic downturn as well as criticism of the value of higher education from multiple domains. There were also perceived opportunities as the World Wide Web was gaining prominence.

In collaboration with senior leaders, learning technology directors John Moore and Tom Head were charged with developing an approach to faculty development that would provide opportunities for improvements in teaching and learning and foster a range of competencies with technology. As their iterative-design work progressed, senior leadership encouraged them to develop a model that would ensure that all faculty would participate. Indeed, faculty participation in faculty development is a perennial challenge, and the notion that all faculty would participate seemed impossible. They eventually arrived at a model where a portion of the university’s technology budget would be used to incentivize faculty participation in faculty development. As it launched, FDI became the institutional mechanism through which faculty received new work computers, and as a result, approximately 95 percent of the university’s full-time faculty—an astonishing statistic—participated in faculty development over a recurring four-year computer refreshment cycle. Each year, institute offerings morphed in response to university priorities and goals. Fostering student engagement, learning, and development; student learning outcomes assessment; and teaching online were among the perennial topics, but over time, research and service topics such as data visualization, grant writing, and designing collaborative research environments became FDI options. I had the good fortune of first being a participant in and then later codirecting FDI. The FDI design capitalized on the institutional zeitgeist at Virginia Tech at the time of its launch, which included a recession, state-level criticism, a need to address student learning, and the emergence of ubiquitous desktop computing. Indeed, FDI has recently been rebranded and redesigned for new challenges at Virginia Tech.

In truth, faculty development leaders can only do so much through empathetic approaches, excellent programming, and rich expertise to foster faculty participation in center activities. To meet the academic challenges of higher education today, senior leaders must embrace CTLs as never before, examine their own institutional zeitgeist, and develop compelling institutional strategies and structures to ensure that faculty participation moves beyond those who are naturally predisposed to embrace academic change.

1. Lanthan D. Camblin Jr. and Joseph A. Steger, "Rethinking Faculty Development," Higher Education 39, no. 1 (2000): 1-18.


  • C. Edward Watson

    C. Edward Watson is associate vice president for curricular and pedagogical innovation at AAC&U.