Tuesday, August 28, 2007

New Colleges, New Deans -- Changes in the Air at YSU

Welcome to Lincoln Avenue! After being an occasional host on WYSU’s Focus Program for about 10 years, I’ve now started my own weekly program. On Lincoln Avenue, I’ll talk with local activists, leaders, and critics about what’s happening in the Mahoning Valley and here at YSU, and I’ll talk with visiting experts on a wide range issues, from politics to science to the arts. You can always learn more about each week’s topic here on the Lincoln Avenue blog.

Unlike daily news sources, a weekly program isn’t necessarily tied to immediate events. My goal is, rather, to draw attention to trends, issues, and ideas that might not be “hot” enough to make the front page or the evening news but that affect our community in important ways. Over the summer, I talked with “Janko,” one of the leaders of the recent wave of Youngstown blogs and community organizing by young professionals in the area. I got an update on Youngstown 2010 from Bill D’Avignon, and a report on the area’s potential for “brain gain” from Julie Scarsella. Jim Cossler brought his evangelizing about the Youngstown Business Incubator to the program. Soon, I should have links to those earlier programs here on the blog. For now, you can hear each week’s program by visiting the WYSU web page.

This week’s show features Dr. Shearle Furnish, the dean of CLASS, YSU’s new College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. In many ways, CLASS isn’t new at all; it’s made up of the 9 departments remaining in the old College of Arts and Sciences after the University moved the science, math, and computer sciences departments into the new STEM college. That creates a challenge for Dr. Furnish: how to engage faculty positively in building a new identity for the humanities and social sciences. For Furnish, what sets CLASS apart is our commitment to and excellence in undergraduate general education. Majors and graduate programs matter, but as he explains, CLASS faculty will meet new students early and our teaching and attention can have a significant influence on students. As someone who’s been actively involved in local and national teaching initiatives, I’m excited about having a dean who cares about teaching. At the same time, defining ourselves as “the general education experts” seems to minimize the importance of our research and our expertise in our fields of study.

Last week, I talked with Dr. Martin Abraham, the founding dean of YSU’s new college of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Given the growth potential that Jim Cossler sees in software development businesses and the state’s interest in promoting STEM approaches to education, this college seems to have potential to help both YSU and the community. But it brings challenges, too. Reorganizing the University is not just about changing letterhead; it involves people. For the faculty in STEM, this change will bring new pressure to collaborate across disciplines. That can be productive, but it can also be difficult. While academic disciplines are, in some ways artificial – in the so-called real world, knowledge isn’t broken into separate, well-defined sections – most college professors have been deeply trained in one field, and our work lives are structured around our departments. Interdisciplinary work asks us to think in new ways, and it can feel professionally risky. In our interview, Abraham talked about his role in bringing faculty together, as well as about the relationship between the new college and local economic development.