Translating SUA’s Mission Into Action: An Interview With Dean Hamersley

January 31, 2024
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Dean Hamersley poses in front of glass windows on Soka University of America's campus

M. Robert Hamersley, who was named Soka University of America’s dean of faculty in June 2023 after 16 years teaching and serving in a variety of leadership roles at SUA—including two years as assistant dean of faculty—sat down to share his vision for empowering faculty as mentors and teachers, supporting student success, and upholding the university’s commitment to academic excellence.

In the interview, Dean Hamersley elaborates on key initiatives around faculty development, research, interdisciplinary collaboration, and career readiness services to actualize SUA’s mission of fostering global citizens committed to living contributive lives.

In light of our university’s mission, how would you describe SUA’s unique place in the landscape of higher education today?

From the beginning, SUA’s mission, “to foster a steady stream of global citizens committed to living a contributive life,” was actualized through Soka’s unique commitment to global learning. SUA helps every student grow into a global citizen through two years of language study followed by study abroad in the language of their choice. By offering study abroad in the target language, SUA’s study abroad program is more than an intercultural experience because it offers immersion in language at the university level. Further, SUA’s curriculum offers students a very rich opportunity to study subjects directly related to addressing the world’s pressing issues.

From 2017 to 2018, I led a team of students, faculty, and staff at SUA that assessed our curricular commitment to social and environmental sustainability as part of the application for which we were certified by AASHE STARS at the Silver level. As part of that effort, we were awarded the maximum score for sustainability in our academic programs and research, because of the very high proportion of our courses, programs, and research dedicated to social justice and environmental sustainability. SUA is unique not only because of our unique mission, but more importantly, because we actualize that mission in a measurably impactful way.

What is your vision for SUA? What do you believe to be the role of the faculty in achieving that vision?

Academic study remains the core of the university experience. At SUA, students study with faculty mentors in small classes averaging around nine students. Every student has a faculty advisor, and every student undertakes an individualized capstone research project with a faculty mentor in their senior year. Our academic structure places close mentorship relationships between faculty and students at the center of all their academic endeavors.

Beyond the structure of our academic programs, Soka faculty engage students through team-based work, field trips, and other practical experiences. Supporting faculty in their ability to closely mentor students is a key part of my job as dean of faculty. Faculty have access to many resources to support these student learning experiences. My goal for the faculty at SUA is to empower them to develop as teachers who employ inclusive and active teaching practices to best meet our students where they are, and to help them to master the skills that will enable them to lead successful, contributive lives after they graduate.

University faculty differ from teachers at other levels of education in that they must be professionals dedicated to advancing knowledge within their disciplines. This difference is important because university faculty understand their fields of study and can communicate about them as knowledge creators rather than simply knowledge communicators. The tension between their roles as researchers and scholars and their roles as teachers can lead faculty to think of these two roles as competitive. However, at SUA, teaching and scholarship often go hand in hand, and faculty offer students many opportunities to engage with them in research as paid research assistants and in research-based courses like project-based laboratories, independent study, and the Capstone experience.

Can you elaborate on some of the current opportunities you see for the faculty and academic programs at SUA?

As much of the higher-education landscape moves toward automated and remote instruction, SUA, with its all-residential campus and small class sizes, remains committed to education based on face-to-face interactions and close mentorship relationships. Our ability to maintain that commitment to our students remains our strength and our uniqueness. Another important opportunity we are pursuing is to more consciously and vigorously support student success after SUA through helping students understand the career competencies they are gaining through their academic study. We are working with the Career Development Office and other groups on campus to provide students with comprehensive career readiness services so that they will be prepared to live successful, contributive lives as global citizens.

Can you tell us about any specific initiatives or projects you plan to implement to enhance the academic experience for students and faculty members at the university?

My goal is to assist faculty in becoming the best teachers and scholars that they can become and to help them better support students in their own development. For that reason, professional development for faculty is one of my important initiatives. I am in the process of implementing membership for all faculty members in Academic Impressions, a professional and leadership development company that offers training and support for faculty, staff, and administrators in higher education. The burdens on faculty of simultaneously being scholars in their field, teachers of students, and administrators of the curriculum can be hard to balance. The professional and leadership development opportunities offered by Academic Impressions can help faculty develop as leaders and as professionals. I have begun offering workshops and trainings through Academic Impressions with the goal of developing a healthy and productive faculty culture at SUA.

How do you see the role of research and innovation within the faculty at SUA, and what strategies do you have to promote and support faculty research?

Research keeps faculty engaged with developments and methods in their field. In addition, through faculty research, students have the opportunity to be trained in research as well. Through the President’s Research Assistantship and the Summer Student Research Program, around 70 students each year get experience in research across all of the fields represented at SUA. Summer student researchers in the sciences are funded to present their research at national conferences. Student researchers learn how to conduct research, but they also help faculty with their research and in exploring new research directions.

In today’s ever-changing educational landscape, what is your perspective on the importance of interdisciplinary studies, and how do you plan to encourage collaboration between different academic disciplines within the university?

SUA is interdisciplinary by design. We offer a single major in Liberal Arts with five concentrations, and a very robust general education program, which ensures that all students receive a very broad and interdisciplinary education. In addition, the different academic units can cross-list courses with each other, giving students an even greater opportunity to engage with cross-disciplinary subjects. Because of our small size and the absence of academic departments, faculty routinely engage with colleagues from other disciplines, a level of engagement that would be difficult in a traditional university where faculty are siloed into departments. I have spent most of my career in interdisciplinary institutions and in interdisciplinary studies, but SUA is the most interdisciplinary place I’ve ever worked at. Our unique academic environment supports faculty in interdisciplinary teaching and provides students with opportunities to make connections across disciplines.