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The Negentropic Professor and the Online Curriculum

By Sydney Freeman, Allen Kitchel, Alison Carr-Chellman / November 2017

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This paper presents an examination of the changing roles of professors in research universities from a chaos/complexity framework as applied to re-integration via online learning. Faculty work has expanded in recent years to include engagement with strategic enrollment growth, external funding beyond research grants, contracts, inventions, and even patents [1]. Heckman and Montera examined entropy, including its role within organizations [2]. Their discussion posits a set of ideas they term entropy, which is described as a gradual decline toward disorder, randomness and eventual collapse that applies to all human, living [3] and social systems [2]. Fortunately, entropic systems have negentropic actors working to stave off disintegration and bring purpose, order, and sustainability to the system. This notion can be metaphorically applied to a subset of new, innovative faculty members who are redefining what it means to be professors in the modern research university. Having a deeper understanding of ways that universities can leverage resources in times of scarcity is an ongoing dialogue that runs the gamut from new online programming to increased external funding and everything in between. Historically, faculty members have come to their careers with a clear-eyed focus on their three primary tasks: teaching, research and service [4, 5].This focus tends to be allied with disciplinary ties, and over time, faculty begin to connect more with the mission of an institution [6].

The negentropic professor begins and sustains their career with a focus on the survival of the institution as closely tied to their own career progress. For example, the negentropic faculty member may expand from thinking about simply teaching the 2-2 or 3-3 course load as it is assigned to them, to thinking about ways to implement more capitalistic activities that can increase enrollment through innovative online offerings. Today, one of the most likely spaces to increase enrollments and benefit learners as well as the organization one works for is within the online space. More than 60 percent of higher education leaders point to online education as a critical aspect of their long-term strategy [7]. Increasingly, universities are asking their faculty to expand and broaden their conception of their work and to align individual ambition with efforts that lead to institutional growth. This approach, however, opens the university to the potential for unethical or coercive dealings with their faculty.

Chaos Theory, Entropy and Negentropy

Chaos theories, systems theories, entropy and negentropy are all constructs from thermodynamics with scientific and mathematical foundations [8]. The basic laws of thermodynamics are easy to understand conceptually, but can be more difficult to understand mathematically. The second law of thermodynamics indicates that as energy is used to accomplish system goals, a portion of it is wasted, leading to the natural tendency for any system to degenerate into disorganization over time [9]. This tendency is only combatted by its mathematical opposite-negentropy. Most of us who have lived and worked in universities for some time can attest to the tendency of the university to be moving toward disintegration and entropy. It is likewise an exciting time to see the potentials of online learning as one form of negentropy in the higher education context. The origin of negentropy in Schrödinger's 1944 text, "What is Life," captured popular interest but has been debated as well. Defining negentropy more precisely was taken up by Brillouin in his 1953, 1956, and 1962 works. Despite these works, there remains an interest in more clearly defining the construct. Here, we appropriate the ideas metaphorically, as many in the social sciences already have [10]. Negentropy is the purposeful and intentional work against the natural disintegration that entropy brings. Certainly, no faculty member acts in entirely negentropic ways. There are some actions that mark the negentropic faculty member and some actions the university leadership can take which will help encourage negentropic tendencies. In order to encourage innovative online programs that emanate from faculty ranks themselves, leaders need to maintain strong trust, transparency, and alignment with faculty goals.

The essence of negentropic faculty work is a focus on both collective thinking and individual action. While there may not be financial institutional support for negentropic faculty work, there are other ways that an institution communicates with the faculty that this work is essential. In the online space, negentropic faculty behaviors fall into several specific activities:

  • Teaching online courses with innovative techniques or technologies.
  • Proposing new curricular programs with an eye toward highly marketable options.
  • Participating in organizing and coordinating new program offerings.
  • Engaging in ongoing professional development for online teaching skills.

These activities represent negentropic forces on the entropy that universities are currently facing, particularly around enrollment decreases within the online learning space. While there are many other ways that faculty and staff daily contribute in negentropic ways to their institutions, the focus here is in the online learning space and ways that this can serve the enrollment needs of research universities. We are in the fifth year of significant declines in college enrollments [11], with most of those rejecting college experiences being adults over 24. Online and distance education have opportunities to bring e-learning to the fore. These forms of education appeal to adults who are working full-time jobs, raising families, and balancing work/life demands on a daily basis. The bulk of the growth in online learning has been in non-profit rather than for-profit institutions that had traditionally enrolled far more than non-profits in the online space [12]. The good news is that e-learning is increasingly being seen as a space for combatting the entropy hitting traditional institutions rather than only the domain of for-profits.

One pre-requisite for true and wide-ranging innovative practices in the university is that it be founded not solely in staff, students, or administration, but rather in the backbone of the university-its faculty. How do we define negentropic faculty behaviors, and how do we recognize them when we see them? A first step is grounding the theoretical construct in the higher education literature, linking it to the shifts occurring due to the demands of online teaching, and differentiating negentropic work from traditional notions of faculty work. Identifying negentropic professors and developing them over time in the service of increased innovation in online offerings is an essential element of real faculty-driven online learning growth.

Disintegration Because of External Pressures

The reality of today's academy is that external forces have an outsized effect on the operations of colleges and universities. It must be noted that the notion of the negentropic professor evolved within a particular context and is a reaction to institutional constraints and administrative pressures, rather than an across-the-board desire by faculty to take on these characteristics. Dhir articulately explains these external forces: One reason why their challenges have inherently complex dynamics is that many of the issues shaping them arise from sources external to academia. The socio-economic demands confronting academic institutions are altering the purpose of education. Where democratic societies emphasized the need to create an educated citizenry for well-considered socio-politico-economic decision making, now education is being emphasized as a way to secure means of livelihood in an environment shaped by the evolving knowledge economy, globalization of business, and workforce diversification. Business organizations, competing globally, are redesigning their business models, usually without collaboration with academia. Additionally, to stay competitive in the changing environment, businesses seek education as a commodity, packaged in short-term courses that are delivered in convenient modes, requiring the least disruption in organizational routines. To the extent that academia is unable to respond to the emerging needs, they are deemed irrelevant by the very stakeholders they seek to serve [13].

Increasingly, organizations are shifting the responsibility for providing basic employee training to secondary and postsecondary education organizations [14]. This, along with "decreasing public funding is raising the pressure to seek external resources through fund-raising. Increasing societal and accreditation-related regulation, in a litigious environment that constraints rapid change, demands" [13], can cause faculty to take on negentropic mindsets. Parents and students are becoming increasingly price-conscious as tuition is rising higher than the rate of annual inflation [15]. Faculty are now being expected to embrace and address these challenges in innovative and strategic ways.

Faculty Work and Negentropy

Neumann, Finaly-Neumann, and Reichel focus on how rewards are utilized in motivating faculty [16]. Quite similar to most of the findings in online rewards structures, it may be surprising to note that monetary rewards have shown variable motivational impact "…in the social sciences, faculty commitment is likely to be affected by intrinsic outcomes such as challenge and meaning in work as well as support from a friendly group or from an understanding chairperson" [16]. Nevertheless, research also exist that shows financial incentives do influence otherwise reticent faculty to engage in what can be seen as an onerous task with new technology and relentless teaching timetables [17]. Overcoming the challenges of increasing entropy that is occurring currently across higher education will take specific steps from leadership, in addition to efforts from faculty. Allowing expansive innovation to take root, trying things that fail, not being afraid to engage in the design process, which includes failure, are all ways that leadership can help encourage negentropic faculty behaviors.

Entrepreneurial tendencies are not the same as negentropic work. Entrepreneurial faculty is defined by Lee and Rhoads [18] as "the effort of faculty to generate revenue for themselves or for their institutions," the latter being related to negentropic work, but the former not so much. However, these authors point primarily to consulting and grants work, and assert that these activities hurt the overall mission of institutions with particular attention to the harm caused to undergraduate teaching activities. In the online development space, entrepreneurial tendencies can serve the institution well in teaching; however, entrepreneurs typically have a focus more on their own bottom line and the specific rewards for their own careers rather than the betterment of the entire institution. Engaging in online program development can be one of the primary ways that negentropic professors can walk between these two demands (institutional and individual). What this looks like will vary based on the institutional mission, but for most in traditional research universities, engaging in the creation and implementation of new and innovative online offerings allows for the faculty member to contribute to the institutional needs as they evolve in this new era of increasing demands on higher education, as well as faculty's own needs to reach out to new audiences. A good example here: One of the authors of this paper came reluctantly to the online teaching experience, in part because of a need to fulfill institutional needs and drawn by incentives that would benefit the faculty member's department/program. Over time, however, the experience shifted to include not only institutional benefits, but also personal benefits as there was an opportunity to work with, learn from, and teach students that would be inaccessible in a purely residential program. In this way, the faculty member can see benefits that are both institutional and individual.

Institutional commitment is key to negentropic behaviors as most such behaviors are an outgrowth of a caring attitude toward the home institution. Harshbarger describes four issues key to institutional commitment: autonomy, personal connections, values match between self and institution, and equitable treatment [19]. The key to encouraging truly sustainable negentropic faculty behaviors in the service of creating new and sustainable online programming is to marry faculty autonomy and interest with institutional interests in online growth; which is a high leverage space as described previously. The caution here, however, is that to be effective it is necessary to relinquish control. To allow faculty the freedom to pursue online curricular opportunities where there is a good match with their interests even if it runs counter to leadership perspectives, given it is not damaging to the institution. In contrast, the opposite end of the spectrum runs toward colonial control of faculty through manipulation of various kinds. A good example, Austin tries to suggest how to manipulate faculty through deeper understandings and alignment with their culture and values [20]. Leaders are encouraged to analyze and understand the culture, establish priorities by articulating primary values and goals, align institutional values, make rewards systems clear, and several other cliché strategies like helping faculty in different fields understand one another. A better strategy from our perspective and experience is for leaders to recall past personal experiences when they were faculty and try to think through what would have motivated them to engage in institutional growth and betterment from both the institutional and individual perspectives. Empathetic connections between faculty and leaders can lead to deeper understandings without colonial manipulation.

Faculty Socialization

Helping faculty to change their ideas of their daily work to include online curriculum design, development and ongoing teaching starts during their preparation and socialization as future academics. In general, the orientation for doctoral candidates focuses on individual research as the "coin of the realm" [21]. Creativity and innovation as it applies to online curriculum development is not something generally taught across academic disciplines within the academy. Brownell and Tanner point to both socialization and rewards structures as impediments to innovative (and we would extend to negentropic) faculty behaviors [22]. Gonzalez and Padilla explore methods for faculty engagement and commitment to organizational reform [23]. They find two things that are key to faculty engagement: "goal congruence and perceived viability of achieving change"—that is, the extent to which an innovation such as online teaching or new online programming will be taken up by a faculty member is largely dependent on the extent to which the innovation is in alignment with faculty goals, and belief as to whether it is likely to actually happen.

Perhaps most connected to our assertions of negentropic professor work would be the recent discussions of capitalism inside university walls. Lester and Kezar confirm faculty work experienced change over the last two decades [24]. While bemoaning the fact that faculty have less voice in governance and are given less formal authority, the authors also define academic capitalism as "the engagement in market-like behaviors on the part of faculty and universities related to the competition for resources in the form of grants, contracts, partnerships with industry, endowment funds, and spin-off companies." One of the clearest examples of universities moving toward more market-based and market-sensitive behaviors that are consistent with negentropic behaviors is the creation of innovative online programming.


New programs proposed by faculty within traditional research-based institutions can have powerful negentropic forces. They are purposeful, aligned with university needs, and can represent both personal interests and institutional goals. Supporting such efforts for faculty willing to engage in these activities requires differential socialization and preparation of doctoral students, encouragement to think capitalistically and with markets in mind, transparency and trust in upper administration, a non-colonial approach from leadership, and support from the highest levels of university administration. In summary, there is significant opportunity to connect this relatively new notion of negentropic faculty behaviors with the innovations available in e-learning to combat entropic forces facing universities today. By reviewing the literature in faculty work, and then drawing those lessons into the chaos and systemic theories of entropy and negentropy, this paper has asserted that many opportunity exists to utilize e-learning as a key negentropic force in the hands of empowered faculty and supportive leaders.


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About the Authors

Dr. Sydney Freeman, Jr. is associate professor of Adult, Organizational Leadership, and Learning Department at the University of Idaho, where he specializes in higher education as a field of study, higher education executive leadership preparation, faculty development and HBCUs. He is an affiliate of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Minority Serving Institutions and is a Learning Resources Network (LERN) Certified Faculty Developer (CFD) and Certified Online Instructor (COI). He is a prolific author with over 30 peer reviewed journal articles and book chapters. He is featured in The Chronicle of Higher Education and his co-edited volume, Advancing Higher Education as a Field of Study: In Quest of Doctoral Guidelines (Stylus, 2014) was recognized by the Graduate School at Auburn University in 2015. Nationally, he serves on the Board of Directors of the American Association of University Administrators and was named their 2015 Emergent Leader of the Year. In addition to being the managing editor of HBCU Research + Culture, he is the founder and Senior Editor and Chief of The Journal for the Study of Higher Education.

Dr. Allen Kitchel is an Associate Professor of Education and the Associate Dean for the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences at the University of Idaho. His content expertise is in teacher preparation with specific focuses on Career and Technical Education, and business and marketing teacher preparation. He has published more than 20 scholarly articles in national refereed journals, presented at numerous national professional conferences, and served as mentor and major professor for graduate students. His research interests include leadership and faculty development, professional development of CTE teachers, program and curriculum development, best practice models for online pedagogy, and technology integration in learning.

Ali Carr-Chellman is the Dean of the College of Education, Health & Human Sciences at the University of Idaho. She is a graduate of Indiana University in Instructional Systems Technology and has written numerous books, articles, and chapters on topics ranging from change, diffusion of innovation, gaming, instructional design, cybercharters and online learning.

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