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Laval launches ambitious teaching chairs program

University plans to create 50 chairs over five years to foster innovation in teaching.

By MARK CARDWELL | OCT 11 2011

Université Laval unveiled an ambitious new program that will create 50 academic chairs devoted to fostering leadership in teaching. “Teaching is what universities are all about,” said Éric Bauce, the university’s executive vice-rector and vice-rector for development. “Having chairs that provide teachers with an opportunity to develop new tools and approaches that are in tune with the modern generation strongly upholds our mission and our values.”

Announced in May, the new Programme de Chaires de leadership en enseignement is a joint venture between the university, business and government. The program, which the university calls the biggest initiative of its kind for a Canadian university, aims to create 10 new chairs a year over five years with $20 million in funding from private-sector partners and $15 million from Laval’s existing budget.

According to Dr. Bauce, a key architect of the program, each of chairs will generate some $400,000 in funding from sponsors over that chair’s five-year term. Most of that money – roughly $60,000 a year per chair – will be used to pay half of the chair holder’s salary. Sponsors commit at least $15,000 more a year to help pay for the innovative pedagogical approaches and practices that chair holders are expected to develop.

“We want [chair holders] to mix technology with classical education,” said Dr. Bauce. “An example might be integrating the use of modern communication devices in a course in a way that will make the students more capable and competitive.”

Chair holders likely will be a mix of tenured faculty members, visiting professors and postdoctoral scholars keen to teach undergraduate studies. Their performance, he said, will be evaluated according to several performance indicators, including annual activity reports, retention rates, grades, student evaluations and feedback from employers who hire its graduates.

In reference to the private sponsorships, Dr. Bauce said, “It is important to note that we have put a system in place that protects the autonomy of the university. We, not the sponsor, define the curriculum of each chair. They are investing in the program, not controlling it.”

That independence was a guiding principle in discussions that began a year ago between faculty, alumni and students to find a novel way to increase the financial participation of private and public partners in the teaching and training of undergraduates, he added. “We considered several approaches,” said Dr. Bauce. “There was overwhelming consent for [the jointly funded teaching-chair program] since our partners benefit directly from our efforts.”

The corporate response has been encouraging. Six chairs have been created so far in a variety of fields – mining, social sciences, religion, administration and agriculture – and several more are in the works.

Though he hadn’t heard about Laval’s new program when contacted by University Affairs, University of Alberta chemistry professor and 3M National Teaching Fellow Glen Loppnow said it was welcome news. “Any initiative that enhances teaching is great,” said Dr. Loppnow, who holds the Vargo Teaching Chair at U of A and is a board member of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. “This one sounds extraordinary.”

According to Dr. Loppnow, few Canadian universities have established chairs that support and encourage devoted teachers to innovate and develop new methods and tools of teaching. “It’s important to try new things,” he said, and to scale-up the ones that work. “Unfortunately, most schools don’t devote enough resources to that end.”

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