Columbian College dean faces scrutiny

by Cory Weinberg

Dean Peg Barratt participates in the groundbreaking for the Science and Engineering Hall in October. The allocation of space in the new building has caused tension among professors within the school.
Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Dean Peg Barratt participates in the groundbreaking for the Science and Engineering Hall in October. The allocation of space in the new building has caused tension among professors within the school.

The dean of GW’s largest school got a harsh message from her faculty last week.

Professors in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences think Dean Peg Barratt lacks a clear vision for the school and fails to understand the discipline-specific issues in its 42 departments and programs, according to results from a staff survey obtained by The Hatchet.

The survey, conducted anonymously online in December and January, drew responses from more than two-thirds of the school’s 465 full-time professors.

Discontent with her leadership was critical – and widespread.

Senior faculty were more likely to say she’s unable to articulate a clear vision for the college and a majority who took the survey said she doesn’t anticipate problems or seek input before establishing policies.

“Teamwork was not characterized as one of the dean’s stronger attributes,” the evaluation summary said, pointing to failure to work with faculty to develop plans, policies and an “atmosphere of trust.”

The dean earned high marks from faculty in her advocacy for Columbian College within the University, and a majority of professors praised how she followed through on commitments.

Barratt said while she “absolutely” values the review and is listening to faculty suggestions, she will maintain a focus on the upcoming strategic plan and her fundraising levels.

“As a dean, my job is to manage a complex web of multiple stake holders. Naturally I have to make tough decisions in pursuing short-term and long-term goals. In doing so, I try to communicate my reasons, and I understand reasonable people may have reached different decisions,” Barratt, who declined to be interviewed in person, said in an e-mail.

“I take this feedback and all feedback seriously,” she added.

But the University is not solely looking for an academic chief, Provost Steven Lerman said. In an interview about Barratt’s results, the provost said 40 percent of her job is to fundraise. Under University President Steven Knapp, GW’s deans have seen their roles transform from focusing on growing their schools’ academics to prioritizing half their workload for raising money. Barratt is under increased pressure as the Columbian College is expected to be a major supplier of fundraising dollars for the $275 million Science and Engineering Hall.

“It’s a huge challenge, because the plate’s pretty full, so there’s constantly this balancing act,” Lerman said.

Still, Lerman said he will translate "the input to a concrete list of things she can do to address those concerns” during his regular meetings with Barratt.

University spokeswoman Candace Smith did not return requests for comment on how much Barratt has raised during her tenure.

Part of the solution may be to clear off Barratt’s workload. Lerman said he and administrators have discussed with every dean how to delegate to associate deans some of each colleges’ day-to-day operations so deans can focus on vision-setting and courting donors.

Lerman brushed off the harshest criticisms against Barratt, saying the survey is difficult to put in context, because it is the first time a Columbian College dean faced faculty evaluation after the school's bylaws were revised last spring. The deans for the GW School of Business, College of Professional Studies and Graduate School of Education and Human Development also each face periodic review from faculty, according to the schools’ bylaws.

Most of the more than two-dozen Columbian College faculty interviewed by The Hatchet declined to share their opinions on Barratt because the survey by the Dean’s Council was considered private.

Some professors, who asked to remain unnamed because they did not want to publicly criticize their superior, said the survey confirmed their impressions that Barratt lacked a strong academic vision for the college and failed to effectively communicate about departments’ hiring and budget concerns.

“The problem is with vision, the lack of consultation [and] being in a reactive mode rather than a proactive [one]. She’s been a pleasant person to work with, but those stick out,” said philosophy professor Paul Churchill, who has taught at the University since 1975.

In interviews, several professors sympathized with the nuances of a dean’s job, which requires juggling competing departmental needs while following administrators’ vision.

“From my point of view, any dean is in a tough position, because they’re trying to satisfy two different groups,” said Eric Cline, chair of the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. “She has to make faculty happy and Rice Hall happy. I cannot imagine being in that position. Whatever decision you make you’ll upset somebody.”

Barratt, an alumna, was hired away from her role as the deputy director of research policy analysis and coordination at the National Institutes of Health in 2007 – the last year of former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg’s tenure. This is her first deanship.

She also taught psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Elizabeth Fisher, a professor of classics who sits on the Dean’s Council, said Barratt compares favorably to the six other deans that have led the college since Fisher came to GW in 1978.

“In my view, she’s doing a good job in a difficult position,” Fisher said. “There are competing interests, and sometimes you just can’t win.”

In a comments section of the evaluation, faculty zoned in on three areas of discontent: Barratt’s proposal last year to move the philosophy department to the Mount Vernon Campus, the Science and Engineering Hall and the 2010 revisions of the general education requirements.

More than 100 faculty from across the college signed a petition last spring to halt the philosophy department’s potential move to the Vern. Philosophy professors had said Barratt made the call without first receiving their input. She reversed the decision a month later, citing the negative impact the move would have on the department’s interaction with students spread between two campuses.

The allocation of research lab space for the Science and Engineering Hall has also sparked debate among Columbian College professors this academic year, as science professors have vied to secure space in the $275-million building. The space assignments, which were finalized last week, left 40 percent of the college’s science faculty without research lab space in the state-of-the-art building, which will open in 2015.

The Dean’s Council – a group of 15 faculty members that advises the dean – and Associate Provost for Academic Planning and Assessment Cheryl Beil developed the evaluation and submitted a detailed report of its results to Barratt and Lerman.

More than two-thirds of the school’s 465 full-time faculty responded to the survey. Revisions to the Columbian College bylaws made last spring call for a faculty evaluation of the dean every three years.

Aliya Karim and Andrea Vittorio contributed to this report.

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