Stigma against boasting might limit MU faculty success

Faculty say the “culture of modesty” limits potential to win awards.

In his op-ed to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in March, Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs Hank Foley said MU must “unleash the power of the willing,” when discussing the faculty culture on campus.

His statement suggested that MU’s “power of the willing” is currently latent.

Harry Tyrer, chairman of the Faculty Council’s Faculty Affairs committee, said there is a “culture of modesty,” which hinders the “power of the willing” among MU faculty. Officials have said the university’s ranking in the Association of American Universities has suffered because faculty tend to shy from boasting about their accomplishments, making it difficult to recognize each other’s work and subsequently nominate it for awards.

“We need to move from a culture that has been, at best, ambivalent to faculty starting new ventures to one that is more supportive and that values such activities,” Foley wrote.

Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin echoed Foley’s sentiment during a March 18 press conference, calling on faculty to do a better job of nominating each other for awards. He is currently working with faculty to advocate for a uniform process through which they can more easily nominate each other for awards.

“We need mechanisms in our office to be able to help our faculty to do the task of just mechanically nominating somebody,” Loftin said. “We have great colleagues here; we aren’t telling their story well.”

Faculty recognition is significant in part because of its connection to MU’s ranking within the AAU. Michael O’Brien, dean of the College of Arts and Science, told The Maneater in April that MU is at the “bottom of the barrel” in nearly every AAU indicator, including the number of faculty awards.

In 2010, MU faculty received 78 awards from national and international organizations, according to the College of Arts and Science Mosaic Magazine. The average for the rest of the AAU for 2010 was approximately 210 awards.

Tyrer said more needs to be done to recognize faculty and researchers whose efforts are worthy of awards.

He said though the nomination process is difficult, it is not an excuse for the abysmal nomination records. There are faculty in Tyrer’s own Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering who feel they aren’t receiving the recognition they deserve for their hard work, he said.

Tyrer said the complaints he fields from disgruntled faculty members often come in the form of requests for raises. These faculty believe they've done excellent research and aren't being adequately compensated, outside of the money they receive from the external organizations that issue the awards.

Awards and fellowships do not always go hand-in-hand with raises, but Tyrer said he believes they should. He said there have been faculty who have become fellows in their societies — what he called the highest honor a society can bestow upon general membership — and haven’t seen an increase in pay from the university, much to their chagrin.

Tyrer said he blames this perceived injustice on bureaucracy, which he said puts department chairpersons in a situation in which they “don’t understand the value of their faculty being chosen as fellows of their societies.”

Tyrer said there aren’t many braggarts among MU faculty and that they would like there to be a more subtle way for them to request nomination and recognition for research.

“We don’t want to run around the halls and say, ‘Hey, I just got an award from my society!’” he said.

Department of Chemistry chairman Jerry Atwood said he believes the stigma against boasting is unwarranted and damaging to MU. He said faculty have to be more vocal about their accomplishments if the university is going to improve its standing within the AAU.

Faculty at top-ranked AAU schools like Harvard University have won many awards and understand the nomination process, Atwood said. He said MU faculty have to get out of the rut of thinking they’re not as worthy of nomination as faculty at other AAU institutions.

“A lot of the faculty at MU are as great as the faculty at Harvard, but there’s a general culture here of not wanting to boast and (instead) be modest,” he said. “We need to get away from that idea and get into the mindset where a faculty member will go up to another faculty member and say, ‘I think I should be put up for a certain award, would you do it?’ If that’s not regarded as boasting, then that would just be something we would do for the betterment of ourselves and for the university.”

Sarah Bush, associate teaching professor of biological sciences, said when a community of faculty wins a lot of awards, it transforms faculty culture and makes it easy for faculty to nominate and commend each other.

“It creates a positive feedback loop,” Bush said. “Once an institution starts getting more awards, then it’s in people’s minds. They think more about which colleagues in their department might qualify for awards.”

Atwood has won several awards for his work in chemistry, and was named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in December 2014. He said he’s invariably been nominated by somebody outside of MU.

This trend needs to change if MU faculty are going to win more awards and keep up with their counterparts at other AAU universities, Atwood said.

“We need to promote people on campus on the national and international stage,” he said. “We need to get away from the idea that this is somehow bragging or boasting, but rather it’s something that would be good for the person and good for the institution.”

However, not every department is plagued by these issues. Department of Political Science chairman Cooper Drury doesn’t think boasting is even necessary in his department. He said collegiality has made his department immune to issues of internal recognition.

“We are very supportive of each other’s success,” he said. “When any faculty member accomplishes something big, everyone is very pleased with it. It’s a supportive faculty where we’re happy to see our colleagues succeed.”

He did agree, however, that faculty need to do a better job of nominating each other for awards on average. While his department does very well by his account, Drury said he’s seen other departments struggle.

Some MU faculty and administrators place too much emphasis on award nomination and AAU ranking, Tyrer said. He said he recognizes the importance of AAU indicators like faculty awards, but doesn’t believe it outweighs the importance of putting quality teachers in the classroom.

If the emphasis is placed on teaching, awards will follow, he said.

“We want to win awards because of the things we do,” Tyrer said. “We don’t want to just do the things that are necessary to win awards.”

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