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Deans not convinced of Focused Excellence

By Andrea Kelly & Jeff Sklar
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Monday, March 1, 2004
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About 18 months after President Peter Likins announced plans to reshape the university, many of the people responsible for actually implementing that new mission say it has been slow to catch on.

And even the university's top two officials acknowledge they still have work to do persuading the administrators most directly responsible for carrying out the mission to embrace the new priorities.

In interviews, several deans and department heads still spoke of the new mission, Focused Excellence, largely in terms of issues like program cuts and long-term plans to reconstruct certain academic areas.

"To me, Focused Excellence is not a unified program, but a bundle of related projects," said Larry Evers, head of the English department. "At this point, Focused Excellence has not had a major impact on our department."

That's a narrower attitude than Likins and Provost George Davis are trying to convince the campus to embrace.

Ask them to explain the mission of Focused Excellence, and they'll say it involves a university-wide mindset shift that requires everybody to direct resources at top priorities while acknowledging that the UA can't do everything.

"We hope that every dean and every department head and every vice president thinks the same way," Likins said.

But even Likins and Davis say not all those people do. Likins speaks often of the UA's need to get better without getting bigger. But that represents a fundamental difference from typical departmental philosophies, which equate size with quality, Davis said.

"If a couple people retire, our knee-jerk reaction is reload in the department," he said.

Now, they're asking people to change that mindset. Rather than automatically hiring a new faculty member to replace the old one, maybe the money that would pay the new person's salary would be better used to hire more staff in the department, Davis said.

But such an attitude shift doesn't seem to be taking place, said Chris Segrin, head of the communication department, adding that questions about how to reorganize and shift priorities haven't been fully answered.

Likins acknowledged that not everybody understands how Focused Excellence will directly affect them, and he warned he won't always have the answers.

But Evers said there appears to be a dichotomy between departments and academic disciplines that have been specifically targeted for elimination or reconstruction, and those that are only being asked to contribute more generally to Focused Excellence.

In large part, liberal arts programs like Evers' English department weren't listed under any of the approximately 50 specific plans Likins and Davis outlined for reorganizing the university.

"We don't feel as included," Evers said.

The list of proposals included closing the School of Planning and merging German Studies with Russian and Slavic Studies, but it also included long-term plans to reshape disciplines like life sciences and earth sciences.

But even in departments that may be directly impacted, many faculty aren't participating in discussions that could lead to the restructuring of their own areas.

For example, not all biochemistry faculty seem interested in working with a team charged with evaluating how the UA could maximize efficiency in life sciences, an area administrators have identified as one of the UA's strengths.

Part of the problem may be faculty buy-in, said Tom Baldwin, who heads the biochemistry department. But with faculty so focused on teaching and research and generally very entrenched in existing institutions, convincing them to change is never easy.

"Leading faculty is like trying to herd cats," Baldwin said. "They just want to work with their classes, their research and students."

Baldwin said faculty members on committees looking at reshaping the university in other areas are working diligently.

Members of the focus groups charged with evaluating possibilities for broad academic reorganization have periodically been presenting their findings to Davis and the deans. Davis described this process as "very exciting."

But that work isn't always visible throughout the university, and some say they haven't seen as much of an emphasis on Focused Excellence in recent months as there was shortly after its announcement.

"Focused Excellence has dropped off the radar," said Bill Beezley, interim director of Latin American Studies.

Eugene Sander, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said a recent report from a group considering cognitive and neurosciences made people feel more comfortable about the transparency of the process.

The College of Agriculture has been operating under principles of Focused Excellence for years, long before it was formally announced, Sander said.

Sander characterized the principles as "selective excellence, not uniform mediocrity." He also agreed with Likins and Davis that the university can't be completely comprehensive with its finite resources.

Keeping faculty informed about Focused Excellence developments has been a challenge, Sander said, because the process of developing proposals had to move quickly.

Likins and Davis have emphasized from the beginning that Focused Excellence is a university-wide endeavor that requires an investment from the entire campus.

In fact, just a week after publicly unveiling Focused Excellence in 2002, Likins said the process of changing the university wouldn't just be a top-down endeavor.

"This is a university, and we don't just make executive decisions and send out memos on Monday," he said in September of that year.

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