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Tay Netoff.

Tay Netoff joined the Department of Biomedical Engineering last year to teach and to research the origins and mechanics of epilepsy.

Keeping the best

How the U is changing the climate for new faculty members

by Martha Coventry

From M, fall 2007

Tay Netoff is one of those young brilliant minds who can make a university great. And with his work in trying to understand how epilepsy moves through the brain, Netoff had a plethora of opportunities for settling his family and beginning his academic life. He chose the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Minnesota. "One of the things that made the difference in coming here was that the people in the administration were much more responsive than at other places," says Netoff. "They treat you as a colleague and they recognize that new faculty are really keeping this place alive." In the past two years, the University has begun a push to attract the most talented faculty members and keep them here, with a new welcoming strategy, a revised tenure policy, better salaries, and greater attention to issues like diversity and collaboration. Increased competition nationwide for the same faculty pool is a factor in the effort, but an even bigger motivator is the U's goal to become a top-three public research university. Arlene Carney, a professor in the Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences, is now a vice provost in charge of making sure the U does everything it can to help young faculty members make the best start possible. She's part colleague, part mentor, part facilitator. She gets fired up when she talks about what the University has done to attract these faculty, and the word "nurturing" enters her vocabulary a lot.

Today, nationwide more than 50 percent of new Ph.D.s are women, and the U has altered its policy to reflect this changing demographic and to give more opportunities to both men and women when it comes to taking care of their families or themselves.

Through a series of efforts, including a new faculty orientation program, Carney and her team are helping new teachers and researchers achieve their potential and are building loyalty to the U. "A task force looking at faculty culture found that faculty tend to feel a strong connection to their departments and to their disciplines, but not always to the University of Minnesota," says Carney. "We're trying to give them that connection right away."

Starting off right New Faculty Orientation for Twin Cities faculty is a three-day affair. Each day, incoming faculty from all disciplines meet together on a different part of campus. "One of the best things the faculty told us about the orientation was that they made friends with people from other colleges whom they never would have met, and they continued those friendship throughout the year," says Carney. Trica Keaton agrees. Keaton came to the U last fall as an assistant professor after a stint at Indiana University. She has a joint appointment in American studies and global studies and focuses on questions of race and exclusion in the United States and France. "I've never attended an orientation that actually brought together people from the natural and social sciences and humanities all in one room," she says. "So that was fantastic. I was able to establish some relationships [last year] with people in the Medical School and on the St. Paul campus who are working in the sciences." President Bob Bruininks, Provost Tom Sullivan, and other senior administrators are included in the orientation meetings and receptions for new faculty members. Keaton asked them difficult questions--like how the humanities and social sciences will fare in the push for a stronger research agenda--and no one shied away from them. "It was refreshing to find people in high powered positions willing to have frank discussions," she says. "I've since reached out to them and to chairs of other departments.... I probably wouldn't have done that if I didn't feel that door was open. That tone was established early on." Netoff found a similar openness and respect during his hiring process. "When you're interviewing and wondering if people are going to treat you well, this type of communication makes a huge difference," he says.

Valuable resources Orientation does another important thing for young faculty. "It provides us with resources that make a huge difference not only in what we accomplish, but what we believe we can accomplish," Keaton says. For her, one of those resources came in the person of Jeanne Kilde in the Institute for Advanced Studies, who has helped Keaton write a grant for a project in Paris as well as design a lecture series. Netoff needed support, too, but of the material kind--he had to have the right equipment to do his job. In his lab in Nils Hasselmo Hall, Netoff stains slices of brain and uses a microscope to record the electrical signal in a cell during a seizure. The fluorescent signal from the dye allows him to photograph how this seizure moves across the brain in milliseconds from cell to cell. When it comes to the brain producing this reaction on its own, "we don't really understand how and why this happens," he says. Netoff is one of only a handful of people in the world who use this sophisticated set-up to study the patterns of neurons, and the U honored his skill and potential. "When I wrote down the list of everything I wanted in order to do my research, [the administration] said, 'If that's what you need, that's what you get.' Now it's up to me to perform," he says.

Catching the brass ring Performance is a key issue for young faculty because it brings up the most sought-after achievement and most stressful topic at any university--tenure. Tenure is the holy grail of a professor's life, assuring him or her--barring any grievous actions--of a permanent academic home. Traditionally, to get tenure faculty members have to publish a number of high-quality articles or books and establish a record of good teaching in a set amount of time, usually six years. The U's faculty tenure policy was originally crafted in 1941, a time when U faculty members were almost exclusively male and many had wives at home to look after children. Today, nationwide more than 50 percent of new Ph.D.s are women, and the U has altered its policy to reflect this changing demographic and to give more opportunities to both men and women when it comes to taking care of their families or themselves. The biggest change to the policy was to make it tougher to get tenure--a change that the faculty asked for and the faculty senate voted unanimously to accept. The standards are more explicit and more rigorous. For example, previously the tenure policy examined a faculty member's potential to develop into an excellent scholar and teacher. The new standards require that a faculty member have already demonstrated excellence in those areas before he or she is awarded tenure. The changes in the tenure policy appeal to Netoff. "The new tenure code seems reasonable and has built-in transparency," says Netoff. "That has put me more at ease. I can pay attention to my research and teaching. Once I get to the time when I'm ready for tenure, I think I'll have a good feeling about whether I deserve it or not."

Not just for new faculty The support that the U gives its young faculty members extends to those who've been around for years. Carney has been approached to do an "old faculty" orientation and although that might be a way off, there are already workshops for all faculty on teaching and on writing grant proposals. The University is raising faculty pay, as well as upping from 20 to 30 the total number of faculty awarded the Regents Professorship--one of the University's highest honors--and increasing the award's stipend. Prominent faculty are also honored on the Scholars Walk and the Wall of Discovery, both on the Twin Cities campus. The goal of the University is to raise the level of excellence in the three areas that have been its mission since the beginning--teaching, research, and outreach (now called "public engagement"). Taking care of its faculty--old and new--will help the University become a world leader as well as a Minnesota institution that keeps its eyes focused close to home.


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