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Administrators, like politicians, tend to be viewed with a certain reflexive suspicion on a campus like ours. As a class, they're regarded by the campus proletariat as careerists, martinets, climbers: in a word, as suits who make way too much more money than we do, and for what? Do they teach, do they type, do they sweep? It gets our proletarian dander up.
Yet as with one's own congressman, there's often a lot of appreciation for the particular administrators one knows: a sense that they function as a kind of intellectual physical plant, keeping the sidewalks plowed, the phone lines working, and the rest of us from holing up in our own digs and forgetting the rest of the institution entirely. Two for whom we frequently hear such appreciation are Cora Marrett, now in her third year as provost and senior vice chancellor for academic affairs, and associate provost Mary Deane Sorcinelli '78G, director of the Center for Teaching.
In fact, we've heard virtually nothing but good about these two, other than recurrent anxiety that the provost, a nationally-known sociologist with a high profile in education circles, might be lured away by another institution. In a conversation with the two of them in the provost's office this fall, Marrett raised the same spectre regarding Sorcinelli: "I've been concerned from the first about our ability to retain her," said Marrett. "Because we've got a national leader in Mary Deane."
What Sorcinelli has a national reputation for and has made a smashing success of at UMass is faculty development "around teaching," as she might say. Since her arrival in 1989, opportunities for professors to talk and work together on the metaphysics and mechanics of instruction have radically increased. The center's programs have touched about a quarter of the faculty by now. "And it's like a cadre, it keeps expanding outward," said Sorcinelli.
The Ur-program in the center's portfolio is the Lilly Teaching Fellowship, a combination seminar/tutorial in which half a dozen junior faculty each year work together and with senior-faculty mentors. The Lilly participants form a community, said Sorcinelli there are 112 of them by now, and 100 mentors as do participants in other center programs.
What may most distinguish the center is that so many of its programs are series rather than one-shot deals. They are systematic, rather than episodic, expressions of the campus's commitment to this core responsibility. And in contrast to "sick-teacher" or crisis-intervention approaches in some other places, the UMass programs are voluntary, positive, passion-driven.
The manifest commitment and desire that draw faculty to the Center for Teaching are also apparent in these two administrators. Once wound up, they barely contain their enthusiasm for the energies that make a campus percolate, and for clearing channels through which those energies can flow.
They're an interesting pair. Mutually supportive and admiring, scrupulous listeners yet quick to expand on one another's comments, each of these trim, compact, focused women is the highly disciplined product of a very large family. The ebullient Marrett is one of twelve children, the soft-spoken Sorcinelli one of eleven. Each in her own way radiates good-natured, but unshakable, purpose.
The teaching and research purposes of UMass they describe as entirely intertwined. We floated the proposition that while Sorcinelli's principal passion is the dissemination of knowledge, the provost's is knowledge-creation. No! said Marrett, as she does every once in awhile. (She also throws in an occasional emphatic Yes!) The whole point of "the integrative university" that Chancellor David Scott has been pushing is that students learn best where knowledge is being created, and when they can be involved in its creation.
"It's true you've heard me say a lot about research, creativity, discovery," said Marrett. "But that's because the university hasn't always had the legitimacy that it should have in those areas. Not that faculty weren't doing it they clearly were. But the public, the legislature, others still thought of us as a place where perhaps we should do very good teaching, but not original research.
"That's why I've pushed so very hard for recognition of what makes for a research university, what makes for a land-grant institution: It's our concern with how knowledge originates, and with how you get students involved. And that's why we're so interested in those faculty who represent the very best of that integration.
"I like the idea that you're featuring Lynn Margulis in the magazine [cover stories, pages 24-29, 30-31]. Because we don't have a scholar of greater stature at the university; but what she does with teaching, and mentoring, and even the third part of our mission, outreach with trying to make sure the public can benefit from the knowledge she creates that's the integration we represent."
"Lynn Margulis has actually been a Lilly teaching mentor several times I hope she told you that," said Sorcinelli. Whole classes of Lilly fellows have "marched over to Lynn's teaching lab" for tours and shop-talk. The intertwined devotions of teaching and scholarship are what make for first-rate professors, Sorcinelli and Marrett say. The administrator's job is to clear impediments, encourage connections, make space where those devotions can flourish and grow.
And more: their job is to spot strengths and anticipate outreach. "We have to look Mary Deane has heard this over and over," said Marrett with a nod in Sorcinelli's direction "We have to look for our areas of distinction and distinctiveness. And so I ask my colleagues, all the time, all over campus: Tell me. Where is it you're trying to go. What it is that sets you apart. That's what we'll build on."
The foresight that created such strengths as UMass polymer science and computer science and linguistics is the legacy of such administrators as the late Oswald Tippo '32, Marrett said, and current vice chancellor for research Fred Byron. "You can almost look across campus and see where those decisions were being made."
"And that's what Cora is doing too," put in Sorcinelli. "Trying to push departments to think holistically about their missions; trying to create reward structures that reach across the missions. And then this third core value I've got 'em all!" she said, turning to the provost with a laugh. "I've heard them so many times! 'Distinctive; integrative; anticipatory'!
"That, just as you've said about Oz Tippo and Fred Byron, we have to be taking the mass of this university, and saying, Where are targets of excellence. Where, if we invest money, can we anticipate that we'll be responding to the commonwealth, that we'll be moving where new know-ledge is moving.
"You look to the future," said Sorcinelli, smiling at her colleague and boss, who beamed back. "You've asked departments and units to really look to the future rather than the past. You're very future-oriented."