Fairfield Now - Spring 2008
Enhancing the Core The College of Arts & Sciences Board of Advisors
By Virginia Weir
The College of Arts & Sciences' Board of Advisors at a meeting in January (l-r): Robert Ollwerther '78, P'10, Susan Alexander '78 (chair-elect), Dr. Katherine Schwab (faculty board member), Jorge Figueredo '82, Thomas Franko '69 (trustee), Margaret Murray P'08, Dr. Raymond Poincelot (interim College dean), Dr. Edmund Sybertz, Jr. '72, and Harry Rissetto '65, P'00. (Not pictured: James Cafferty '94, Patricia Femia '82, Robert Harrison, III '98, Samuel Harvey, Jr. '72, James Hoefner '79, William Hulseman '98, John Joyce '92, Kathi Loughlin '80, Mary McGuinness '83, P'09, Felipe Polanco '01, Laura Toner '80, Robert Zito '75, P'08.)
What do the three diverse disciplines of Biology, Visual and Performing Arts, and Religious Studies have in common? All three departments have received significant funding from the College of Arts & Sciences (CAS) Board of Advisors to engage in projects whose objectives have more in common than one might think.
Fairfield University President Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J., and then-dean of CAS, Timothy Law Synder, knew first hand how advisory boards could positively guide schools in strategic planning and development activities for long-term growth. It was agreed that the College - the oldest and largest of Fairfield's six schools - could benefit significantly from the expertise and support of an experienced advisory board working in partnership with Advancement.
With this in mind, 19 alumni, one parent and one faculty member were chosen in 2005 to become the College's first Board of Advisors, chaired by Jorge Figueredo '82. They come from graduating classes ranging from 1965 to 2001, and from a diverse range of professions - from finance and law to communications and teaching - but what all the volunteer members have in common is an experience in Fairfield's liberal arts tradition and an active interest in enhancing its academic program.
An effective partnership
The new Board of Advisors began its task in the fall of 2005. After discussion with all departments, former Dean Snyder selected three areas of focus for the Board's first fundraising cycle. During the first year, the Board reviewed several proposal drafts developed by the faculty, providing valuable input as the projects were refined.
The choice of which projects to fund was challenging. Figueredo comments that "it was a learning process for everyone. We found out a lot about the inner workings of departments and operational issues."
The learning curve extended to faculty, too, who had to present their projects in a way that would engage and influence those outside academia. The College's interim dean, Dr. Raymond Poincelot, played a major role in shepherding the projects to the Board, and praises Figueredo's leadership. "Jorge was always asking the hard questions, helping translate academic understanding of an area to the external audience. It was a helpful, thought-provoking experience for the faculty involved."
The faculty/Board partnership flowed seamlessly to the fundraising phase, and Board members generously contributed to the department initiatives. Backed by 100 percent participation from its members, $200,000 was raised to fund three projects over two years, as well as initial seed money toward a future art museum in Bellarmine Hall.
Dr. Katherine Schwab, associate professor of Visual and Performing Arts, has been the faculty Board member acting as a communicator between the Board and the CAS faculty at large. Noel Appel '80, advancement liaison to the College, plays a similar role, working closely with the dean to facilitate the work of the Board and connecting its activity to the Advancement Division. "The multiple collaborations that exist in support of the College Board are the key to its success and are recognized by colleagues at other institutions as a model worthy of replication," Appel notes.
"Working together with the dean and faculty is one of the most rewarding aspects of being on the Board of Advisors," Figueredo agrees. "Fairfield's faculty are wonderful, talented people, and it's a world that many of us aren't normally exposed to."
All three funded projects are designed to enhance the learning process for both students and faculty by building opportunities for reflection and engagement into the way each program works. This theme was integrated in the way the Board itself approached the task of choosing the projects. Notes Figueredo, "We ourselves went through a process of discernment together, evaluating the projects in relation to the University's strategic plan and our experience in the outside world."
In addition, several Board members supported projects outside their personal field of interest. For instance, a former English major contributed to the Religious Studies project; a former engineering student supported the Visual and Performing Arts residency. As Appel notes, "There was a kind of cross-pollination we didn't necessarily expect but, from a Jesuit perspective, it was exactly what we would have hoped for."
Biology: informed discernment during transitional moments
The biology project, directed by department chair Dr. Glenn Sauer, began by recognizing that incoming freshmen often major in biology with the intention of becoming medical doctors. Discouraged by the intensive first-year coursework, many students switch out of the major without knowledge of other post-graduation professional opportunities available in the field, ranging from research and business to nonprofit organizations.
"They need an inclusive community of support to help get them through that first year and see what their options are," explains Dr. Sauer. As part of the project, 25 junior and senior biology majors are receiving small stipends to act as mentors to incoming freshmen, sharing their own experiences and encouraging the new biology students. The experience has been good for the mentors as well, giving them a chance to reflect on the progress in their own academic careers over the past few years.
This reflection is also part of the project plan, as upperclass students meet with faculty in an intentional way to discern what their next step might be. A room will be renovated to create a "Science Scholarship Center" for tutoring, mentoring, and access to other resources. Another component of the project will be to help prepare students for graduate and medical school exams, provide coaching for job interviews, and engage alumni guest speakers.
"It's a change in the way we do things," Dr. Sauer says. "We believe this kind of supportive community, with an understanding of how students are developing in each year, builds a strong foundation." The Biology Department expects this foundation for learning will work to leverage future funding, too.
Religious Studies: common ground in an introductory course
Introduction to Religious Studies is a required core course for all Fairfield students, covering the basic tenets of the world's religions, exploring their similarities and differences, and helping students understand how religion intersects science, the arts, and politics. "There is a very basic citizenship piece in studying religion," asserts Figueredo. "You need to understand the world's religions beyond what you read in the newspaper. This understanding is part of the liberal arts tradition, with its emphasis on integration across disciplines."
How do the 15 full- and part-time faculty members of the Religious Studies Department find a common, relevant approach to this important "gateway" course? "Our professors have varied expertise and scholarship in Islam, Judaism, Asian religions, and Christianity," says Dr. Frank Hannafey, S.J., department chair. "This course is one of the most important things the Religious Studies Department does for the University. We decided we could benefit hugely from a retreat to review the curriculum for the intro course."
In the first of two colloquiums, religious studies faculty came together for a full day in September 2007 to discuss the possibilities. Dr. Alfred Benney, professor of religious studies and director of the project this year, points out, "In a world where many Americans think of religion as only a private affair between them and God, events such as 9/11 clearly demand that we pay attention to the diverse public faces of religion and its influence on the way we live. As we rub shoulders with other cultures, it is more and more important for us to understand their values and ideologies, and better understand the religious foundations of our own society. We need to attend to this if we are to be truly Jesuit and prepare our students for living in the real world."
It was decided to appoint a "department scholar" to coordinate the project, and Dr. Benney was chosen for 2007-08. Dr. Ronald M. Davidson, professor of religious studies, who was instrumental in developing the grant proposal, will head the project next year.
Another goal is to increase faculty-student mentoring and interaction, and increase interest in the major. As part of that increased involvement, student focus groups will evaluate intro classes to articulate what pedagogy works best.
Visual and Performing Arts: close work with theatre experts
"Fairfield's theatre program teaches theatre as a liberal art," says Dr. Marti LoMonaco, professor of theatre, who worked closely on the project proposal with Dr. Jesus Escobar, chair of Visual and Performing Arts. "Like lab science, all theatre students work in a theory-and-practice pedagogy, with both formal course and production work." Graduates from the program are well-prepared to work in all areas of the theatre industry, and go on to careers as college teachers, designers, directors, administrators - and even professional actors (see the article on Fairfield graduate January LaVoy '97).
With its small faculty of three full-time professors and one full-time technical director, the Theatre Department regularly hires outside professionals to work with them on all aspects of a production: direction, costumes, production, lighting, and more. The department is thus poised to take full advantage of their project funding to contract with a group of top theatre artists for a full semester residency at Fairfield. Before the resident semester, guest artists will work with faculty on the curriculum, and together with the students will create and direct a production.
"Having the artists in-residence will allow the students to have a much more intense and holistic experience. They won't just be coming off the train from the city for a day; they'll be available to students on a daily basis. This will make all the difference," notes LoMonaco. Negotiations are underway; if all goes according to the plan, the guest artists will take residence in an upcoming semester.
The next project for the Board of Advisors will focus on global citizenship. "The Board is an invaluable resource, shaping and supporting the future growth of the College," says Dr. Poincelot. "It has truly been an honor to collaborate with all of these devoted individuals."