Q&A: 2009-10 Faculty Senate President Fred Olness

Fred OlnessFred Olness, professor of physics in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, has taken on the challenges of leading SMU’s Faculty Senate during a year when a General Education Curriculum update, SACS reaccreditation and capital campaign have placed faculty issues front and center.

The 2009-10 Faculty Senate president talked with SMU Forum about shining a spotlight on faculty excellence, keeping exceptional students fully engaged, and what the entire University can learn about itself during the reaccreditation process. Read more under the link.

As Faculty Senate president and therefore an ex officio SMU trustee, you’re in a good position to get faculty issues front and center, especially as the Campaign for the Second Century develops. Can you talk about that?

There are three major issues important to the faculty, as well as the future of SMU: the General Education Curriculum update, the SACS reaccreditation, and the Capital Campaign. All of these offer opportunities to advance the ranking and stature of the University, and we’re now in a very strong position to make this happen. One of our primary tasks is to spread the word about exciting faculty accomplishments, which can provide tangible evidence to help attract scholarships and endowed chairs.

We’ve made significant progress toward the campaign goal already, adding 11 endowed chairs to the 62 existing at the onset. We hope to exceed our target of 100 endowed chairs by the close of the campaign, and use these resources to recruit and retain stellar academicians.

The capital campaign will also provide support to supplement scarce departmental discretionary funds which may be used to accomplish priority initiatives. For example, in our department, gifts from generous donors allow us to bring distinguished speakers to campus, support undergraduate research projects, and more. There are many such examples across campus where a small amount of additional support can have a dramatic impact.

SMU is in the process of reaffirming its accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. How will the University benefit from the process itself?

Reaccreditation provides a chance for SMU to do some self-examination and see how well we’re fulfilling our commitment to the students. We are putting significant effort into this self-evaluation, and it is important that we reap the full benefits of these efforts and learn something about ourselves in the process.

Students, of course, are at the center of everything we do. They are demanding more from their college experience than ever before. Our students desire to be challenged – they want more honors courses than we can offer currently. They also want more internships, co-op programs, study-abroad opportunities, and undergraduate research experiences. When we offer these opportunities, our students make the absolute most of them. They’re already doing some fantastic things in these specialty areas, and the capital campaign can provide scholarships and resources to expand these opportunities to make sure our exceptional students are fully engaged.

What about the federal stimulus? What SMU programs can benefit from the new funds available there?

The government is offering Recovery Act money to research programs that have demonstrated reliability and a good track record. We’re applying for as much of this initial stimulus as we can. For example, SMU has an opto-electronics lab which started as a small R&D operation, and has diversified into a multidisciplinary resource enabling important collaborations across many departments and local companies. We have some of the best people in the world in signal processing and related technologies. The stimulus funding will allow us to build up this infrastructure so that we can obtain more grants and pursue even more opportunities. There are many similar examples throughout the campus.

Additionally, these economic times have challenged our departments. Due to tight budgets, many departments have kept old equipment running, and patched things here and there. Hopefully the stimulus funds will serve as a research version of the “Cash For Clunkers” program, and our labs can replace some antique equipment with components that are more efficient and versatile.

How do you see your role as Faculty Senate president in these efforts?

In one respect, I’m an academic advocate, working to ensure that SMU makes the strategic investments necessary to ensure the future success of these programs. There are scholars throughout the campus performing work that is at the top of their field. The Faculty Senate wants to ensure these people are getting the necessary support, encouragement, recognition, and incentives to help them maintain their level of excellence in a very competitive academic environment.

Providing the required resources will be a challenge in this economy, but I believe SMU is in a strong position to rise to the occasion. I commend President Turner for his foresight on the various financial issues that has helped mitigate the impact of the economic downturn on our day-to-day operations. The SMU Board of Trustees are also very committed to seeing SMU excel. This past year when the University chose to increase the number of scholarship opportunities, many Trustees stepped up to the challenge contributing additional resources that allowed us to retain and recruit outstanding students. It is a true pleasure to work with people like that.

In another sense, I’m a cheerleader for the University’s academic initiatives. I think it’s critical to spread the word about our campus-wide achievements. As we help communicate these accomplishments, through the SMU Forum, the alumni office, and the media, the excitement over our academic accolades will continue to attract high-quality students and faculty, and generate even more opportunities.

What do you see as the biggest issues facing the Faculty Senate this year?

Goal One of the Strategic plan is: To enhance the academic quality and stature of the University. This is the overarching theme behind all the Senate’s efforts.

The students are our raison d’être. The Senate Admissions Committee is working diligently to recruit the best students in an environment that is becoming increasingly competitive. To continue to attract these excellent students, we must challenge them intellectually, and provide creative learning opportunities; this is a primary goal of the new GEC. Additionally, we are working to further diversify the student body, both in terms of ethnicity and international enrollment.

Our faculty are outstanding. One of our top priorities is to ensure that our faculty members have an environment conducive to great achievements. SMU hires about 30 new faculty each year, and our salaries are very competitive – not just within our cohort, but also with our aspirational institutions. So we’re bringing in some of the best talent out there. But to make that investment really pay off, we must provide an atmosphere to support them toward continued excellence.

And how well is the Faculty Senate positioned to accomplish its goals this year?

We have very capable people serving in the Faculty Senate and our associated committees. Many of our committee chairs have years of experience, and this is invaluable to ensure that the Senate business flows smoothly and efficiently. I am also fortunate to have a wonderfully talented and supportive Executive Committee. Everyone has been very gracious in giving me help and advice. Additionally, the Capital Campaign has generated lots of interest and excitement about SMU, and this campaign is still on target despite the economic challenges.

In short, it appears that the stars are aligned for us to move toward our goal of making SMU the top-tier, preeminent institution in Dallas-Fort Worth, the 4th largest and fastest-growing metroplex in the country.