SAS Dean’s Blog

Building the Faculty of the Future

Rebecca Bushnell

Rebecca Bushnell

Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and Thomas S. Gates, Jr. Professor of English

I’m always pleased to be able to welcome back to campus all of our students and faculty, especially all the new members of the SAS community. We have recruited another excellent class of undergraduates, as well as a strong and very select group of graduate students. On the faculty side, we have a wonderfully talented and diverse cohort of 24 new faculty who are joining us this year, and they will be enriching our classrooms and conducting research in areas ranging from biophysics to Golden Age Spanish literature. I hope that you’ll take a moment to learn more about them at http://ph.ly/new-faculty.

Every year we take very seriously the task of recruiting new faculty members. We know that the decisions we make today are laying the foundation for excellence in teaching and research for tomorrow.

When we talk about building the faculty of the future, we are really talking about two things. The first is the people whom we hire: the teacher-scholars who will chart the School’s intellectual trajectory for the next generation.  Then there are our graduate students. We recognize that the training of our doctoral students will have an impact far beyond Penn, as these students go on to join the ranks of faculty nationally and internationally. 

I believe that the environment into which we are launching these new faculty requires a new kind of “generalist.” In the past, a generalist was someone who could cover the span of an individual discipline: someone like Edward Irving, who could, for example, walk into a classroom and teach modern poetry with as much facility as Old English. Today, a generalist who is an expert in modern poetry can make critical connections between modern poetry and history,  philosophy, or anthropology (among  other disciplines), while also being adept in teaching the newest methods of research and writing, as these methods are being transformed in a digital age.

I know what I want the faculty of the future to look like:  people who possess both depth of expertise and a talent for connecting across disciplines, who love teaching, and who can take their knowledge to the real world. How can we bring them here and have them flourish?

One approach is, at the moment, in its pilot phase. We have begun an experiment in making “cluster hires”: multi-year, multi-disciplinary clusters of faculty searches centered around a single academic theme. We hope that this initiative will allow us to concentrate our efforts on over-arching “big-ideas” –. The process of generating  proposals for cluster hires has itself already energized the faculty, and we  anticipate that this approach will allow us to make the most of our resources by investing in new faculty who will interact with each other and  have an impact across the School. We have already launched the first cluster hire in the natural sciences, focused around the processes that drive evolution.

Among our graduate students, recent doctoral dissertations illustrate the combination of depth and breadth vital  for the faculty of tomorrow: a dissertation at the intersection or religion, history and law; another that combines cultural anthropology, international relations, and educational policy; and still another that brings together  Latin American studies with health policy and communications, just to name a few. Our graduate certificate options are one tool we have developed to encourage such combinations: students in a doctoral program can pursue a concurrent  certificate in areas such as global human rights, cinema studies, or women’s studies,  among others—programs that guide them to course work outside of their disciplinary paths.

Initiatives like these are just a few ways in which we are seeking to build the faculty of the future. Just as we know planning and careful spending are necessary for new facilities, we view the planning and investment in our people—faculty and graduate students alike —as critical to the success of both the School and the larger enterprise of higher education.