Change isn’t instantaneous at a large university like Virginia Tech. But as a freshly minted associate vice provost in the Office of Faculty Affairs, Rachel Gabriele aims to speed up the timeline.

She and Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs Ron Fricker don’t just wait and see. In an office charged with developing support programs and improving academic personnel policies and processes for faculty, they’re taking a data-driven, “bias for action” approach that favors experimentation and iteration. “Our priority is to pilot programs quickly, then learn, adapt, and make something better,” Gabriele said.

The result: multiple new efforts aimed at supporting success and well-being for Virginia Tech’s 2,100-plus instructional faculty. “Rachel Gabriele has taken this office to a whole new level,” said Ellen Plummer, associate vice provost for academic administration.

Journey to having a 'bias for action'

With an undergraduate degree in finance from the University of Delaware, Gabriele's route to higher ed began in an unlikely place: investment banking in San Francisco. She then did marketing for banks in the United States and Europe.

After the Occupy Wall Street movement inspired a crisis of conscience and a shift in priorities, Gabriele began a master’s degree in public administration at Virginia Tech, took a job in the Office of Budget and Financial Planning, and eventually moved to the Office of Faculty Affairs as a project director in 2015.

Her latest promotion to associate vice provost came in February, after she completed a Ph.D. in planning, governance, and globalization. In her new role, Gabriele has increased agency to respond to faculty concerns with strategic change. 

Outstanding faculty are the key to Virginia Tech’s status as a world-class university, said Executive Vice President and Provost Cyril Clarke. “As Virginia Tech advances toward our goal of becoming a top 100 global research university, Rachel’s and Faculty Affairs’ efforts are critical to enhancing faculty productivity, well-being, work-life balance, and perhaps most importantly faculty success and recognition.”

Data-driven decision-making

Much of the data about faculty challenges comes from COACHE, a triennial survey that provides a longitudinal view of faculty perspectives about work, compensation, culture, and more.

When Gabriele took over the survey administration in 2020, COACHE feedback revealed that faculty were struggling to balance their personal and professional lives. They wanted more support. That, coupled with stories from faculty parents, led Gabriele to pilot a dependent care travel grant program with three colleges in 2022, offering financial support for child care during conference and research travel. 

Experimenting with programs, policies, and processes

Gabriele also hears anecdotes about faculty needs as she facilitates the work-life liaison program. Feedback from this group of faculty, who meet with prospective faculty members to openly and confidentially answer questions about life at Virginia Tech, along with data from Virginia Tech and peer institutions, inspired Gabriele and Fricker to develop a course buy-out grant for pre-tenure faculty whose research had been especially impacted by the pandemic.

Other recent programmatic and policy experiments from the Office of Faculty Affairs include:

  • Special leaves for awards and fellowships. To support the provost’s strategic priority of increasing the international recognition of faculty through awards and fellowships, Gabriele identified an opportunity to use an existing policy on special leaves to make it easier for faculty to take prestigious fellowships away from campus. 
  • Writing group grants and writing retreats. After seeing faculty members regularly writing in community at a local coffee shop, Gabriele pioneered academic writing support programs that have reached over 500 faculty.

“We piloted these programs to send the message that we are willing to try things,” said Gabriele. “Maybe it won’t work and we'll modify — it's really a more experimental process — but the point is to do something rather than nothing.”

Share this story