holistic higher ed

Is “holistic” higher ed’s latest innovation star?

New departments, admissions standards and faculty evaluation requirements are being created around the buzzword holistic.

In another move that strays from the traditional hierarchical and siloed traditions of colleges and universities, a number of recent initiatives at some of the country’s most prestigious institutions and higher education organizations are focusing on the buzzword “holistic.”

A simple dictionary reference defines the adjective holistic as “characterized by comprehension of the parts of something as intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole.” In other words, a cohesion of individual parts working together. And, according to recent news reports, this cohesion of departments, teaching practices and admissions requirements is growing in popularity for this year and beyond.

A Holistic Department

According to Valparaiso University, faculty workload was becoming so burdensome–thanks to the additional duties in recruiting, marketing, and fundraising–that the university decided to address the problem by creating holistic departments.

The university notes that a holistic department “emphasizes a more team-oriented approach to departmental organization rather than the traditional hierarchical approach, and supports and rewards faculty for contributing to goals at the level of both the institution and the department in ways other than teaching and scholarship.”

Valparaiso, now in its second year of implementing the holistic department across campus with the help of the New American Colleges and Universities (NAC&U), expects each faculty member to teach an average of 18 credits and also be responsible for 6 additional workload credits that result in a “deliverable product,” notes the university. Their published case study emphasizes that the key to the success of the holistic department model is “both that teaching 18 credits is an average for the department and that the other credits must have a deliverable component. In other words, the responsibilities for teaching can be shifted among faculty members within a department.”

For example, notes the case study, if a more junior member of the department needs to produce more research for tenure and promotion, a more senior faculty member can take on more teaching credits. Similarly, if a professor is working on a book or has personal obligations, hours can be shifted to accommodate those needs.

“Our work had become so diversified and increased and creeped into new fields that faculty members have had to develop entirely new skills without much recognition,” says Joseph Bognar, professor of music at Valparaiso. “Faculty work seemed to be getting larger and more encompassing, and there wasn’t anything happening in terms of evaluation that seemed to account for this.”

(Next page: Holistic evaluations and admissions)