“Innovation Hires” Position MHC for the Future

Sonya Stephens, dean of faculty

A rapidly changing world presents colleges with challenges. How can Mount Holyoke prepare students for tomorrow’s opportunities when it’s unclear what the future will bring? What areas will students want to pursue? What skills will they need to be leaders after graduation?

Dean of Faculty Sonya Stephens has led MHC’s faculty and administrators in a collective exercise in imagining what the liberal arts should look like in the twenty-first century. “With rapid changes in higher education as well as our own faculty ranks, we have an historic opportunity to act in the present to link the past and the future,” Stephens said.

Part of achieving that goal will involve what are being called “innovation hires.” Stephens is quick to note that hiring innovative scholar-teachers isn’t new at MHC. But the innovation hires will be different because the new professors will develop initiatives in specific areas that will take the MHC curriculum in new and adventurous directions. The pilot projects will start in fall 2015 and continue for four years each. When a pilot proves successful, the College will explore a tenure-track position and further expansion of that curricular area.

The six innovation hires, Stephens clarifies, are in addition to the 20 tenure-track faculty MHC is already committed to hiring over the next four years. The overall goal is to strengthen the College’s tenured and tenure-track faculty while offering students courses that are intellectually adventurous in new and visionary areas of, or strongly connected to, the liberal arts.

Innovation hire projects can take several forms, Stephens explained.

• They may weave together disparate threads across several academic fields to enliven and expand existing offerings.

• They may add a new field of inquiry that makes possible new courses, majors, and minors, in connection with existing programs of study.

• They may explore a completely new field by creating courses that build on a research collaboration or address a perceived need.

The first of these innovation hires have been approved by the Academic Priorities Committee, according to Stephens, and proposals for future positions have been submitted for consideration in the next round.  The two searches approved for 2014–2015 are:

• Innovation and Entrepreneurship combines the College’s liberal arts strengths with the business skills an entrepreneur needs to turn dream into reality. Students will learn how to take an idea from the conceptual stage through an examination of the feasibility and operational aspects of the idea, to launch a sustainable organization.

Restoration Ecology—an emerging field studying how to help an ecosystem recover from damage—uses MHC’s science offerings to link local needs with global issues. The College is working on a restoration master plan that will involve a series of projects to restore natural areas on campus. By using the campus itself as a laboratory, this project will build skills that students can apply to problems and opportunities anywhere in the world.  The College is searching for an ecological engineer whose area of specialty could include any combination of ecological engineering, landscape architecture, agroecosystems, and fluvial geomorphology and hydrology in an ecosystem restoration context.

“Innovation hires are just one way of exploring new curricular initiatives, of introducing leading-edge or new ideas, or piloting highly innovative programming before making the long-term investment represented by a tenure-track commitment,” says Stephens. “As a community, we must focus on supporting the growth of our faculty as scholars, artists, and performers, and providing the innovative and imaginative undergraduate experience that students expect from an institution of our stature.”

—By Emily Harrison Weir