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Collaboration, opportunities cited

By Karen A. Grava, CLAS Today

Faculty members, left to right, Daniel Schwartz, Pradeep Ramanathan, Alvaro Lozano-Robledo and Cathy Schlund-Vials
Photography by Daniel Buttrey

When junior faculty consider coming to the University of Connecticut, they look not only for monetary support to equip a lab, hire graduate assistants, travel or purchase books to get started in their field, but also for location, mentorship and collegiality.

And they’ve gotten it. A recent study by Harvard University found that UConn is among 32 institutions nationwide that are most welcoming to junior faculty.

UConn was among 15, including Brown, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Chicago, and Duke, that earned top scores.

The report is borne out by the experiences of junior faculty in CLAS, who say the University has provided them with start-up funds and support, but also with the chance to collaborate with others who could mentor them. They were also attracted by UConn’s location.

“Before I came, I was interested in the fact that there would be people in my department who were also interested in mathematics education,” says Alvaro Lozano-Robledo, assistant professor of mathematics in CLAS. “A number of people are interested in the sorts of questions and outreach I am interested in.”

After he came, he said, he realized that faculty in the Neag School of Education would also provide opportunities for collaboration even though mathematicians and educators often have different views on math education. “There has been a lot of back and forth with colleagues from Neag,” he said. “Looking at two perspectives has been very enriching and I have learned a lot about the issues from both perspectives.”

Lozano-Robledo had also had a goal to stay close to Boston, where his wife’s family lived. And he liked the idea of having a position split between a tenure-track position as an assistant professor and being associate director of the Quantitative Learning Center.

Daniel Schwartz, assistant professor of physiology and neurobiology, came to UConn late last summer. He also wanted to stay close to Boston where he had lived for a number of years while studying at Harvard.

He says the University provided him with a lab in the relatively new Pharmacy-Biology Building, funds for hiring a computer programmer, and start-up funds for purchasing equipment and hiring lab personnel. Although the package was very competitive, he says, he liked UConn for its location and especially for the people in the department.

“I really liked the faculty in the department,” he said. “The interaction here has been really good. There is a good dynamic within the department and I have been able to interact also with faculty in engineering and computer science.”

This fall, he was invited to accompany other faculty to make a presentation to IBM, an opportunity he says is rare for junior faculty. “The community is small enough that junior faculty are invited to do things of that nature,” he says.

“Hearing these stories from our junior faculty, what makes me happiest is that they feel welcomed into the intellectual community in CLAS and at the University generally,” says Dean Jeremy Teitelbaum.

“Our success as a college and university rests on attracting top people and then convincing them to stay. Obviously part of that is making sure our offers are competitive and our support for research and teaching is effective,” he says. “We can also be proud of the supportive environment and sense of community that the faculty and staff here work hard to cultivate. ”

Cathy Schlund-Vials, assistant professor of English and associate director for the Asian American Studies Institute, says she has been impressed her four years here with the support the University has offered. She left a tenure-track position at another institution to come, she says, because she felt very isolated at her previous job, where she was the only person of color on a 220-person faculty. She and her husband, also an English faculty member, were physically separated for three years because instead of finding jobs near one another, they were competing for the same positions.

After Schlund-Vials was hired, CLAS was able to offer her husband, Christopher Vials, first a position as a visiting faculty member and later a position as a junior faculty member in the English department.

“The support here is amazing. I came just after I had finished my first book and I received funding to get the book indexed and to allow me to travel to Cambodia to complete my second book,” she says.

“I could not have gone or finished the book without that funding. But the support of faculty here goes beyond the professional. It is just a very supportive environment where you can ask questions of the chair and various higher ups and where there is a lot of transparency about tenure. There are also good networks for formal and informal mentoring, which I appreciate.”

Pradeep Ramanathan, assistant professor of communication sciences, agrees. His route to academe was more circuitous than some other junior faculty since he worked in Silicon Valley as an engineer before deciding to go back to school to become a speech pathologist. Then he worked in his field before returning to the University of Minnesota to earn a PhD and begin research on brain injuries and memory.

During the hiring processor as a newly minted PhD, he realized that he would like to be at a Carnegie Research I University like UConn. “My doctoral adviser was close friends with the chair of the Communication Sciences Department and raved about him and the program here,” he recalls. “The (UConn) chair, Carl Coelho, was doing research in the same general area I was and that would provide me with a built-in mentor.”

The issue of mentorship was most important, he said, and that has been “fantastic” at UConn. “I have gotten great mentorship from several different senior faculty members in the department, including Frank Musiek, professor, and Harvey Gilbert, professor emeritus. They spontaneously initiated that. In addition, I have gotten mentorship outside the department and have been able to work with a number of faculty, in particular, Jim Magnuson, associate professor, from the psychology department.”

Ramanathan was also interested in UConn because of its location. He wanted to be close to the Vipassana Meditation center in Shelbourne, Mass., where he has taken meditation courses for years.

“I’ve been here two years. If I had to do it over again, I absolutely would come here. I love being here at UConn.”

The report, issued by the Collaborative on Academic Centers on High Education, a 160-member group tied to Harvard’s graduate School of Education, surveyed 15,000 junior faculty members at 127 institutions. Respondents were asked about their institution’s tenure practices, how clear the expectations are when it comes to being awarded tenure and how well the faculty members are able to tolerate work and home life.

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