Sunday, July 05, 2009

Out with the old, in with the new

Tuesday was my last official day as Director of American University’s Center for Teaching Excellence. Parts of the transition have been difficult, but not the parts I expected. Since the Center is larger and better funded than most similar centers in higher education, I thought there might be moves to poach functions, staff and budget by heads of other units. I thought finding a respected faculty member, who fully grasped the Center’s mission and had clout with AU’s higher administration might be difficult. I was concerned that uncertain prospects of new leadership might erode the morale of CTE’s collegial, highly capable senior managers and full-time staff. While I had done my best to ensure a smooth transition, reviewing relevant literature, spending several hours with my personal management consultant and giving transition matters absolute first priority for more than eight months, I worried that I had not done enough.

On Tuesday evening, as I symbolically removed my nameplate from the Director’s office door and replaced it with the nameplate of my successor, I could feel good about the fact that CTE appears to have escaped any of these pessimistic scenarios. AU’s visionary, if occasionally mercurial new Provost, made a brilliant choice of a new Director (his new title will be “Executive Director”) My successor is a gracious, collegial senior colleague whose technical knowledge and clout with AU’s higher administration exceeds my own. Though our previous acquaintance was only casual, we have quickly developed a rapport, grounded in a shared commitment to effect a transition that would enable CTE to continue to playing its key role at AU and take on the new responsibilities tasked to it without missing a beat.

Yes, new responsibilities....! Early next week, AU’s Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) is to become the Center for Teaching, Research and Learning (CTRL). Its broadened mission, which is at the heart of AU’s Strategic Plan, was mandated by the Provost. Its new name was chosen by CTE staff members in a characteristically collegial, inclusive process. We had a contest, open to all staff. Prizes were awarded to the winner and runners up. The acronym, which is an abbreviation for ‘control’ is not intended to symbolize the draconian measures Iran’s government is attempting to impose on its citizens. Rather, it refers, metaphorically, to the CTRL key which is a feature of computers designed to run the Windows operating system. Pressing the CTRL key opens a host of new possibilities for the user. CTE has long been a place that was intended to open new possibilities for our clients. Now CTRL will be even more of a welcoming venue where faculty, students and staff can take advantage of ‘one stop shopping’ to meet their teaching, research and learning needs.

So what parts of the transition have been more difficult? Packing, sorting and moving has been both more time consuming and physically demanding than I foresaw. Though I have had the help of an very able CTE staff member, much of the work must necessarily be an individual effort. Hurst Hall, location of the CTE (CTRL) Director’s Office has high ceilings and no elevators. Boxes of books and other sundries must be negotiated down long flights of stairs. Finding a place to work and to store books and papers that I will not need for a year is requiring patient negotiations.

But it is hard to kvetch when a full year sabbatical, even a largely self-financed one lies ahead. The research I have planned is demanding, exciting and can make a difference. I only must embrace the challenge of having the self-discipline and laser-like focus to use my time wisely. I am physically fit enough to carry heavy boxes of books down many flights of stairs. Following my mother’s advice, I was able to “leave the stage while the audience was still applauding” (or at least there wasn’t a lot of booing).

In May, most AU graduating students packed up their lives, after four years, with a much more uncertain future awaiting them. Unlike many Americans of equal talent and accomplishments, I wasn’t fired. A sabbatical is, in fact part of my job - an unique and much envied perquisite given those fortunate to occupy one life’s most rewarding professions, tenured professor. I will have challenging work awaiting me when I complete my challenging year of travel and research. There is much to be thankful for.

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