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Task Force Executive Summaries and Implementation Plans

FY21 Summary and FY22 Plans 

The College of Engineering has been engaging in a strategic planning and implementation process over the past several semesters. This plan is being used to chart the college’s direction and serve as a guidepost for organizational decision-making, including ways in which to deploy resources. The plan is a living document that can be flexible to incorporate unforeseen opportunities and adapt to new contexts. 

During FY21, in accordance with multiple tactics within the strategic plan, the college formed three task forces with broad participation across the college aimed at gathering detailed information about specific topics and making recommendations to the Dean’s Office for next steps and resource deployment. Below you’ll find summaries of the activities, recommendations, and implementation steps coming from each of those task forces.  


Task force: Identifying Research Thrusts for Investment 


The College formed this task force to focus on operationalizing the following goal articulated in the COE Strategic Plan: Support engagement in transdisciplinary science and engineering. This task force was charged with identifying and prioritizing research thrusts in which the college should consider investing moving forward, following a systematic and inclusive process to identify current transdisciplinary strengths where additional investment could position the college to have a competitive advantage in garnering large extramural awards. 


This task force had faculty representation across departments as well as research institutes to understand the landscape of college-related research as well as the opportunities to leverage broader Virginia Tech resources and facilities. The task force discussed and reached a consensus around the criteria for evaluating college strengths; explored benchmark data with the college’s competitive and aspirational peers; met with the Vice President of Research and Innovation, Dr. Daniel Sui, to understand the university’s future directions; and gathered department-level research strengths and strategies to understand the college landscape.  

The task force also solicited white papers during spring 2021 whereby faculty teams submitted proposals that identified potential areas of investment where the college has strengths at the intersection of horizontal areas (i.e., core competencies that cross-cut and influence many applications, research areas, and curricula) and vertical areas (i.e., market areas that integrate multiple horizontals to an end purpose, application domain, or industry sector in a way that tends to align with a common set of stakeholders, funders, etc.). During summer 2021, concurrent panels with the research task force and department heads were held to review 10 white papers and make recommendations for an initial round of investment. 


College-wide input was sought for this work, but we particularly thank the following for their service with this task force: Jon Black, Myra Blanco, Dushan Boroyevich, Doug Bowman, Debbie Carlier, Rafael Davalos, Tom Dingus, David Knight, James Kong, Stephen LaConte, Jack Lesko, Chang Lu, Kathy Lu, Linsey Marr, Steve McKnight, Aaron Noble, Walid Saad, Wayne Scales, Danesh Tafti, Pablo Tarazaga, Pam VandeVord, Linbing Wang, Chris Williams, and Craig Woolsey. 


- To be considered a college-level research thrust, the college should consider the following: 

  • An area must be driven from the bottom up with faculty champions in place. 

  • An area must be in a space where there is room for growth. 

  • There must be a critical mass of faculty in the college from multiple departments already working on an emerging area of societal importance. 

  • An area must be projected to have longevity of funding.  

  • An area should have strong potential for academic and industry partners in place. 

  • An area should be characterized as convergent research that addresses specific problems or challenges, requires transdisciplinary collaboration, and is supported at the highest levels of science and academia nationally. 

  • There should be existing Virginia Tech assets that can be leveraged to advance the program. 

  • There should be an opportunity to integrate the area with the college’s experiential learning and broader education goals. 

- Major findings from the college’s self-study on research activities include the following: 

  • College and institute activities related to engineering (e.g., VTTI) comprise a large proportion of the overall Virginia Tech research budget. 

  • The college has historically been strong at securing external grants with one or a few investigators, but the competition for such grants is increasing. 

  • VT Engineering is strong at securing industry funding relative to peer institutions. 

  • VT Engineering has not had as much success as peer institutions in large center-level funding nor funding in the health sciences, which comprise large proportions of the federal research budget. 

- Following the concurrent panel reviews by the research task force and department heads, two areas of investment were identified for FY2022: 1) Industry 4.0 Enabled Future Factory and Construction, and 2) The AI-Guided Design and Processing of Ultradurable Materials for Far-From-Equilibrium Conditions. Teams from other white papers were provided with formative feedback and encouragement to continue building out their team-based work for future college and/or university investment. 

Implementation Plans

Several activities will follow from this task force’s work:

Specific investments will be made in two research thrusts: 

  • Industry 4.0: Across FY2022-2023: $50k to support workshops/travel; $60K to support course relief; $150k to support GA/postdoc assistance; five  new faculty lines across departments. 

  • AI-Guided Design: For FY22, with FY23 funding to be determined based on progress: $25k to support workshops/travel; $15k to support course relief; $36k to support GA/postdoc assistance; $100k for new equipment. 

- Institutionalize a regular process of soliciting white papers from faculty to identify new areas of college research investment. 

- Participate in a university pilot process for supporting large research proposals. 

- Develop a strategic plan focused on the health sciences to better understand how the college can be best positioned to attract extramural funding in this domain. 

- Develop a strategic plan focused on northern Virginia to understand how departments across the college can better leverage VT’s presence in that region.  

- Develop the research capacity of faculty within the college: 

  • Organize and connect with university initiatives around professional development and mentoring for research leadership for mid-career faculty. 

  • Position college faculty members for external honors, awards, and recognition. 


Task force: Focusing on Teaching Excellence 


The college formed this task force to focus on operationalizing the following goal articulated in the college’s strategic plan: Invest in faculty and staff recruitment and retention. More specifically, the task force was charged with focusing on the tactic to support, recognize, and reward teaching excellence. Its aims were to understand what aspects of teaching need better support; how the college might measure and incentivize teaching excellence; and what strategies are needed to support, recognize, and reward teaching excellence. 


This task force had representation across the college. It gathered two principal sources of new data to reach its conclusions: 1) a survey investigating teaching issues distributed to all faculty within the college whose duties include teaching, and 2) a series of focus groups with faculty members across ranks. The survey of college faculty had responses from 189 out of 490 recipients (39% response rate). Three focus groups delved into the following topics in greater detail: perceptions of the best and worst aspects of teaching, preferred teaching assignments, thoughts regarding students, concerns regarding evaluation of teaching, recommendations for GTA support, thoughts regarding the rewarding of teaching efforts, and thoughts about the most important priorities for changes to improve teaching.  

Composition of the separate focus groups included: 1) non-tenured instructional faculty (collegiate faculty, professors of practice, and instructors), 2) tenure-track faculty (assistant professors), and 3) tenured faculty (associate and full professors). In addition to these data sources, the task force met with a representative from the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) to glean insights from the Thank-a-Teacher program, and consulted a large-scale study of SPOT scores funded under an NSF IUSE grant that was completed in spring 2021 (“Investing in Instructors: Creating Intelligent Feedback Loops in Large Foundational Courses for Undergraduate Engineering” by Jacob Grohs, David Knight, and Scott Case).  


COE-wide input was sought for this work, but we particularly thank the following for their service with this task force: Andrew Katz, David Knight, James Lord, John Shewchuk, Keith Thompson, Natasha Watts, Juan Jose Monsalve Valencia, and Jennifer Wayne. 


Across the range of data sources, the task force identified several major themes: 

- College faculty care about their impact on students and want to provide meaningful learning experiences. 

- The data suggest that there are several areas that need further work and discussion: 

  • Disparities of teaching assignments across faculty can result in challenges for providing high-quality, individualized educational experiences. 

  • There is a perception that teaching is not valued at the same level as other activities, such as research, by departments, the college, or the university. 

  • Additional transparency would be helpful around the ways in which teaching activity is recognized in promotion & tenure or merit-based salary adjustment decisions. 

  • There are desires for different teaching evaluation methods, and concerns were raised specifically around a heavy reliance on SPOT scores. 

  • Additional teaching support would be helpful (e.g., undergraduate and graduate teaching assistants, management of teaching-related administrative tasks). 

  • There is a need for more coordinated curriculum development and delivery within and between departments/colleges. 

  • More attention should be given to the career trajectory and teaching support needs of non-tenured, instructional faculty members. 

  • There is a desire for better recognition of inclusive teaching practices and quality online instruction. 

- The task force highlighted several ideas for improvement: 

  • In determining teaching responsibility, consider: how course load is assigned, when course load is assigned, support to help faculty manage course administration tasks, and the embracement of online course options. 

  • Increase and enhance teaching assistant support through GTA training, examine how GTAs are assigned to courses, and implement an undergraduate teaching assistant (UTA) program. 

  • Leverage the expertise of the Department of Engineering Education to foster a culture of teaching excellence, promote a teaching community of practice, promote curricular coordination, and expand college work with CETL. 

  • Improve the teaching evaluation process such that a more holistic profile of performance is measured. 

  • Examine how teaching is recognized in the promotion & tenure process and in salary adjustment decisions so that good teaching is recognized and inadequate teaching has consequences.  

Implementation Plans

Several activities will follow from this task force’s work, with the college leadership team (i.e., associate deans and department heads) helping identify some of the immediate priorities identified by the task force to be a focus for FY22: 

- An initial investment of $200K will be made across FY22-FY23 to develop an undergraduate teaching assistant (UTA) pilot program. 

- Rubrics will be developed for the College of Engineering awards. Rubrics for teaching excellence awards will explicitly place value on inclusive teaching practices as well as online teaching.  

- The college leadership team will conduct an assessment of how graduate teaching assistants are allocated across the college (i.e., across and within departments). 

- College and departmental leadership will hold strategic conversations around decision-making and enhancing transparency with respect to workload allocations.  

- The college will continue participating in the university’s pilot for career-bridging experiential learning. 

- The Department of Engineering Education will lead the formation of communities of practice focused on teaching within engineering contexts. 

- A small working group will develop a college strategy focused on online course offerings. 

- A small working group will focus on the alignment between math course requirements and the engineering curriculum. 

- The college will explore ways to streamline, align, and potentially reduce streams of assessment data required by Virginia Tech and external groups (e.g., ABET) at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. 

- The college will support a Faculty Senate-led initiative focused on how teaching practices are reviewed at Virginia Tech. 


Task force: Illuminating Work-Life Balance Issues and Ideas 


The college formed this task force to focus on operationalizing the following goal articulated in the college’s strategic plan: Support practices that improve work-life balance for faculty and staff. This task force was charged with investigating factors that influence faculty/staff work-life balance and recommending strategies to achieve this goal. Objectives included gaining a better understanding from stakeholders on what is meant by the desire to improve work-life balance—the task force sought to uncover what issues are challenging, how the college or university contributes to those challenges, what does and does not relate to COVID-19, and what strategies might the college implement to improve work-life balance. 


This task force had representation across a range of different kinds of roles within the college as well as involvement from experts outside of the college’s context. It gathered two principal sources of new data to reach its conclusions: 1) results from prior surveys conducted within Virginia Tech with a focus on items pertaining to work-life balance, and 2) a series of focus groups intentionally formulated by this task force, with an optional written survey for focus group invitees. Prior Virginia Tech surveys included the 2018 Campus Climate Survey, the 2020 COACHE survey, and the Initial Findings of the Caregiving Impacts Survey administered in October 2020. Focus groups gathered information to: 1) discover and clarify needs and concerns related to work-life balance in the college across employee categories, and 2) identify creative ideas and suggestions that the college could implement to improve work-life balance for employees.  

Seven different focus groups held throughout Spring 2021 grouped individuals by employee type and/or specific demographic characteristics, as the prior survey data suggested certain issues might be experienced differently by certain groupings of employees. Focus groups included: staff, administrative/professional faculty (2 sub-groups), tenure-track and teaching-intensive faculty, tenured faculty, women tenure-track/tenured faculty, and racially minoritized tenure-track/tenured faculty. The task force invited a random selection of employees within those categories; women and racially minoritized faculty members were given the option of choosing to join a women’s faculty or racially minoritized faculty focus group, respectively. 


College-wide input was sought for this work, but we particularly thank the following for their service with this task force: Rebecca Cai, Jenni Case, Robert Emmett, Amy Hogan, Natali Huggins, Jody Humphreys, April Keene, David Knight, Annie Lawrence, Anna LoMascolo, Jeremi London, Miguel Perez, Glenda Scales, Anne Staples, and Keith Thompson. 


The first set of themes consist of ideas that were similar across focus groups: 

- Disparate levels of importance. Responses to the request for participation in focus groups on work-life balance skewed disproportionately high toward women relative to the population of college faculty. This data point should not be ignored. 

- Influence of the pandemic. Although caregiving was raised as a particularly challenging issue during the pandemic, shifting to a remote modality was not viewed negatively by all groups of employees. Rather, there were many instances of improved work-life balance because of new-found flexibility afforded by remote options for staff and A/P faculty in particular. Reducing significant commuting times (which disproportionately affect certain categories of employees as well as non-Blacksburg campuses) and being able to exercise during lunch breaks, for example, were cited as ways in which the pandemic has been positive for work-life balance. There was anxiety raised about reverting to pre-pandemic work since the flexibility has been appreciated. 

- Inconsistent application of policies. All focus groups noted that existing policies pertaining to work-life balance, if they are actually known, are applied inconsistently across departments and across supervisors. Participants noted that the direct supervisor, in addition to the department head, is particularly important for the implementation of policies and working with employees on crafting an individually tailored schedule to meet work-life balance needs. Supervisor turnover induced anxiety among employees in terms of not understanding what that shift meant for their work-life balance arrangements because of this inconsistent approach. There was widespread agreement that who the specific supervisor or department head is should not influence how an employee may leverage these policies. 

- Lack of communication about work-life balance. Several employees noted that work-life balance has never been discussed explicitly within the college or within certain departments. It is important to use those specific words (i.e., work-life balance) when communicating programs or policies so that it becomes apparent how the college and university strive to enhance work-life balance. Having a culture that talks openly about work-life balance appeared to be desired. 

- Respecting working hours. Across focus groups, employees discussed how there is a need to respect the workday. There should not be an expectation that employees be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Several focus groups described how there is a culture of continuing emails outside of working hours in the evenings and on weekends. Such communications can be particularly detrimental to the work-life balance of individuals who are not at the top of the organizational chart because receiving such emails can make those employees feel like they need to respond or act. 

- No formal system for back-ups. Multiple focus groups felt like there is a missed opportunity by not having a formal plan in place to provide additional coverage when someone is unable to be at work. Because many activities are duplicated across individuals and/or departments, having intentional cross-training or back up planning would be helpful. Participants felt like they would be more likely to take advantage of work-life balance policies if something formal was in place. A formal system would ensure re-allocation of work to others is done equitably. 

- Path to promotion. Multiple focus groups described how the expectations pertaining to promotion were mysterious, and the net result was a feeling of obligation to work harder in all areas. This belief resulted in strains on employees’ work-life balance. Although each focus group discussed promotion or annual review processes in different ways (e.g., the tenure process is one route to promotion), the lack of clarity of expectations and the resulting implications for work-life balance was consistent. 

- Culture of overwork. Each focus group raised the issue that the university has a culture of overwork—employees care about the university’s multi-faceted mission and have a tendency to adopt the mindset of working until the work gets done, regardless of what that means for their work-life balance. Some of this situation can be attributed to the broader organizational culture, and some can be attributed to individuals’ tendencies to push themselves to work beyond a traditional work week. 

- Lack of modeling by leaders. A consistent theme across the focus groups is the belief that demonstrating work-life balance needs to come from the top of the organization to the bottom. Focus group participants did not believe leaders from across the college or within departments effectively modeled work-life balance, and modeling is important for demonstrating that we value work-life balance as an organization. 

Several themes emerged that were unique for different focus groups, and so the college needs to consider a multi-faceted strategy. High-level theme descriptions are captured below: 

- Staff: Teleworking was extremely positive, finding ways for more flexible scheduling is desired, and it is important to respect staff professionalism. 

- Administrative/professional faculty: Seasonality of work flows can be challenging, there is a lack of a clear promotion trajectory, and there is some discomfort around having a staff versus faculty duality. 

- Teaching & research faculty: There is a need to streamline administrative tasks, there needs to be more consistency around stop-the-clock and modified duties policies, and clarification around promotion expectations would be helpful. 

- Women, racially minoritized and international faculty: A structural contradiction emerges in implementing continual improvement processes that require additional participation of women, racially minoritized, and international faculty (e.g., high number of committee requests); the dual career system can be improved; the pandemic has had a disproportional impact on women; international faculty need more institutional support as this group faces unique challenges. 

Implementation Plans 

Several activities will follow from this task force’s work, with the following activities set as priorities identified for FY22: 

- Set college-wide baseline-level expectations for the following:  

  • Policies and practices pertaining to work-life balance.  

  • Policies and practices pertaining to serving as a supervisor.   

  • Processes and expectations pertaining to annual reviews and merit-based raises. 

  • Processes and expectations pertaining to all searches. 

- Determine an internal communication mechanism for sharing such documents.  

- Update promotion and tenure documents for all roles in accordance with university changes.  

- Hold strategic conversations with college and departmental leadership around:  

  • Workload allocations. 

  • Organizational culture issues pertaining to work-life balance.  

- Participate in university pilots: 

  • Future of work to explore telework options.  

  • Enterprise workflow system.  

  • HR onboarding system.  

- Build out affinity support and/or mentorship groups for women, racially minoritized individuals, and international faculty members within the college.  

- Facilitate orientation/onboarding program for new college faculty. 

- Study the potential for a system of cross-training within and between departments to formalize back-ups.