Chemistry department unveils strategic plan to improve research and education

Media Credit: Gabrielle Rhoads | Photographer

Christopher Cahill, the chemistry department chair, said he hopes students feel like they have the power to influence the department's decision-making process.

The chemistry department has begun implementing a strategic plan to improve its research and teaching capabilities.

Chemistry faculty are working this semester to make progress on their department’s five-year strategic plan, which includes a list of five priorities developed in 2018 that will enable the department to boost its capacity to “advance world-class research and education in the chemical sciences.” Faculty said the plan will improve the department’s reputation and the “student experience,” which are shared priorities in the department.

The document includes five main goals: enhancing departmental culture, increasing the number of graduate students, hiring more tenured and non-tenured faculty, providing students with more career resources and advancing master’s programs.

Christopher Cahill, the chemistry department chair, said he hopes students feel they have the power to influence the department’s decision-making process as the department seeks to expand its reach under the new plan.

“What we hope students will do as a consequence of this plan is to see themselves as partners in our path forward and to feel empowered to offer suggestions for professional development opportunities they would like to see,” he said.

Cahill said the department plans to improve the experience of its undergraduate population by increasing the number of graduate teaching assistants to assist faculty. He added that faculty are attempting to increase collaboration between faculty and graduate students on research to produce more comprehensive findings.

“Graduate students often start out as teaching assistants and then become research assistants – a role they may have for four or so years,” Cahill said. “We need more of these to support our research aspirations as they engage in funded research agendas.”

He said the department is implementing new programs to boost enrollment, like the Environmental and Green Chemistry program, which department faculty hope will attract high student interest by incorporating a broad topic like environmental policy. Cahill said GW’s location in the District grants the program opportunities to focus on the subject.

“The priorities listed will increase our efficiency, our reputation, our culture and research and our teaching capacity,” he said. “We look pretty good now, but we are on a trajectory to be looking great and hence more attractive to potential majors.”

Cahill declined to elaborate further on new plans for the master’s program in the future.

Cynthia Dowd, an associate professor of chemistry, said she and three other professors crafted the plan throughout last summer. She said the plan was unanimously approved by the department’s faculty in February.

Dowd added that chemistry professors want to strengthen the department’s culture by ensuring all stakeholders, including staff, have a voice in departmental decisions and have “their needs and desires heard and attended to.”

“The culture that the department wants to build is very much building on what is already here – excellence in teaching, research and community,” she said in an email.

Dowd said faculty want to know more about students’ interests for decisions, like planning department events. She cited the Association of Chemistry Graduate Students, a student group formed in 2018 that holds speaker events, as an example of a way in which chemistry students wield decision-making power in the department, she said.

“Our department is a close-knit group of staff, faculty and students,” Dowd said. “It is important to know what students think and value in terms of their experience.”

Higher education experts said the move follows a broader trend of individual academic departments creating strategic plans.

Jay Dee, a professor of higher education at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, said academic departments, especially those in scientific fields, are “increasingly” developing strategic plans to help faculty set research and teaching priorities.

Dee said forming a strategic plan can prompt faculty members to think “creatively” about their personal goals and consider changing traditional approaches to teaching and research.

“When you have those priorities in place, it certainly helps with respect to faculty hiring decisions and what kind of expertise to bring in the department,” he said.

Shouzhong Zou, the chemistry department chair at American University, said departments often create plans in line with a university’s broader strategic goals. Both GW’s and the chemistry department’s strategic plans include the goals of increased collaboration on research endeavors.

He said changing circumstances could prevent a department from fully achieving its goals, but a strategic plan is mostly about the “big picture” for a department – like producing more collaborative research – instead of smaller, specific goals – like accumulating a certain increase in research funding.

“When you actually execute these, there will be problems coming up that prevent or hinder the achievement of those goals, and I think we should look at the bigger picture,” Zou said. “If the department is heading in the right direction, even though some of the goals were not achieved, that’s fine.”

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