New Academic Council Chair Begins 2013-14 Term

Provost search, proposed new degrees to dominate early council agenda

Physicist Josh Socolar in the Duke Gardens by the birdhouses, one of the favorite sites for his family.  Photo by Les Todd/Duke University Photography
Physicist Josh Socolar in the Duke Gardens by the birdhouses, one of the favorite sites for his family. Photo by Les Todd/Duke University Photography

Josh Socolar may have hoped that he would have an easy transition as the new Academic Council chair this summer, but the announced resignation of Provost Peter Lange meant he entered the job July 1 with one large task already ahead of him.

Usually the chairs of the university's highest body of faculty governance begin a two-year term with a summer of less than pressing matters, allowing them time to meet with faculty and administrators, learn the ropes and set an agenda.

"That was what I was hoping for," said Socolar, a professor of physics who joined the Duke faculty in 1992.  "This year is an unusual one in that first time in 15 years, we are initiating a search for provost, and it's clear to everybody that given the institutional structure of Duke, the provost position is of fundamental importance to the faculty."

Socolar, who succeeds Nicholas School Professor Susan Lozier, helped select the faculty members for the search committee and establish a process by which other faculty could have a voice in the search.  The first step of that process will be the first council meeting of the year, Sept. 19, which will include a closed executive session serving as forum for faculty members to discuss the provost's role and responsibilities and the qualities the university should look for in a new one.

Socolar said he closed the session with hesitation but thought it would be valuable for "faculty to have space to speak freely to each other and to the search committee, without worries about how their comments might be taken by the outside world or the Provost himself." President Richard Brodhead will be in attendance, but retiring Provost Lange will not be present.

For Socolar, serving as chair continues a record of involvement with faculty governance at Duke.  He has served multiple terms on the council, and one on the council's executive committee under then chair Dr. Nancy Allen.  He's also worked on the Academic Programs Committee, which helps shape university academic priorities by vetting new programs and reviewing existing ones.

During the summer, the council's offices moved from the third floor of West Union Building to the lower floor of the Allen Building.  One piece of the old office that Socolar made certain made the transition was a small plaque that reads: "Have you consulted the faculty?"

"It made it over to the new office, and it will sit in front of me when I'm talking with the provost and the president or anyone on the second floor above me," Socolar said with a laugh.

One of the challenges of the chair's position, he said, was to make good decisions on what issues "rise to the level that need to be brought to the full council, and which can be handled by the executive committee or other bodies."

The agendas for the fall council monthly meetings are already filling up.  In addition to the provost discussion, Socolar also expects two sessions to be filled with deliberations and voting on as many as seven proposed new degree programs from across the university.   Though these programs will have already been approved by committees with substantial faculty representation, Socolar said consideration of new degree programs in the full Academic Council is important both for turning up possible suggestions for improvement and for certifying that a proposal has the support of the full faculty.

He added that seven is an unusually high number of new degree proposals.  "We'll do our best to honor the work of all the faculty who have put these proposals together.  We don't want to delay them unnecessarily, but want to do our job thoroughly."

One of the new degree proposals will be for Duke Kunshan University (DKU), which is scheduled to open next September.  Socolar expects the council to spend some time in the fall looking at various academic and infrastructure issues related to the opening of DKU, including faculty hiring.

Another issue set for discussion will be online education.  At the end of the 2012-13 academic year, faculty concerns about online education led the Arts and Sciences Council to vote down one proposed initiative.  A variety of other efforts are proceeding, however, and the Center for Instructional Technology is working with interested faculty to adapt lessons from these courses into classroom instruction. 

These efforts need clarity and direction, and Socolar said he wants the faculty to guide that discussion.  The provost's Advisory Committee on Online Education has begun meeting and will report to the Academic Council later this year, he said.

He also expects discussion on matters of some personal importance to him, including considerations of diversity in the faculty, administration and student body and the strategies for balancing growth in the traditional disciplines and departments and the university's interdisciplinary centers and institutes.

"I don't have an agenda to push except to insist that the faculty get the right to ask tough questions and get answers to them," Socolar said.  "I want the faculty to feel like when they come to council meetings, there is a purpose to it, that it's not all pro forma, that they can learn something of value to them and to the divisions that they represent, and that their contributions can have some impact. Mostly that means they must see real responses to their questions.  The responses may be explanations of why things can't go the way they want, but they must be substantive and well reasoned."