Associate Professor of English Ashley Reed has fielded a lot of questions about her new position as the faculty principal for the Residential College at West Ambler Johnston.

“Will you live in a dorm room?” perplexed colleagues have asked. “Do you have to catch students drinking beer?”

And more pointedly, “Are you being punished for something?”

Being a faculty principal in one of Virginia Tech's residence halls is a scholarly pursuit unlike any other —  and puzzling to those who haven't done it. “It's always been really hard to explain to people what it is that I do,” said Reed.

Now leaders in Student Affairs and Faculty Affairs have introduced a new designation to clarify the role: the Provost’s Residential Faculty Fellowship.

“A ‘faculty fellowship’ is a term used in academia to describe unique, and often prestigious, opportunities for faculty to live for a limited time period in a place where they can conduct research, produce creative scholarship, teach, and build relationships within and outside their discipline," said Rachel Gabriele, associate vice provost of faculty affairs. "That's exactly what faculty serving as faculty principals in our residential colleges have the opportunity to do."

Reframing the faculty principal role

Since 2011, when Virginia Tech opened the Honors Residential Commons in East Ambler Johnston, faculty principals have struggled to represent their work in a traditional academic resume. 

Reed, for instance, estimates she spends 15 to 20 hours a week spearheading the intellectual life of the residential college by hosting traditional weekly dinners, visiting with students, and organizing weekly FaculTeas where invited faculty present their research. Up to 60 students have gathered inside Reed’s apartment in West Ambler Johnston to hear professors speak about bioplastics or improvise computerized compositions.

When several faculty principals approached Faculty Affairs with their concerns that the title didn't properly reflect the intensive nature of the position, Gabriele was especially sympathetic. She lived in West Ambler Johnston from 2014-17 when her husband, Matthew Gabriele, professor of medieval studies, was faculty principal there. At the direction of the provost, she worked closely with Student Affairs on reframing the position currently held by Reed and three other faculty members:

  • Natalie Cook, assistant professor of public health, faculty principal for the Honors Residential Commons in East Ambler Johnston Hall
  • Rick Rudd, professor of agricultural and Extension education, faculty principle for the Leadership and Social Change Residential College in O’Shaughnessy Hall 
  • Tim Baird, associate professor of geography, faculty principal for the Creativity and Innovation District

So much is involved in creating the holistic living-learning laboratory of a residential college that referring to it as "the Provost’s Residential Faculty Fellowship" offers colleagues an appropriate frame of reference. “It's a very immersive and very academic position, and I think a term like ‘faculty fellowship’ implies both of those things," said Reed. "I appreciate folks in Faculty Affairs and the provost’s office working to make this change so that this position is acknowledged as the difficult but also rewarding thing that it is.”

Connecting faculty to the holistic lives of students

Moving forward, the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost also will provide the faculty principal’s home department with annual funding to cover course reductions or other forms of support, confirming the position's academic nature. Four associate faculty principals associated with the Residential College at West Ambler Johnston will receive professional development funds as well. 

To Jamie Penven, director of Living-Learning Programs, the new agreement crafted by Faculty Affairs and Student Affairs unifies the often-disconnected student life and academic sides of campus.

“This faculty principal role reconnects faculty to the holistic lives of students," he said. "What this fellowship is doing is showing the investment of Virginia Tech and the provost in this experience and its impact for students and their learning."

Written by Melody Warnick