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Episode 106 - What is a Provost?

UNC Provost, Mark R. Anderson, shares his university upbringing and discusses the importance of building community both on and off campus.

UNC Provost, Mark R. Anderson, shares his university upbringing and discusses the importance of building community both on and off campus.

My name is Mark Anderson. I use my middle initial because there's a lot of Mark Anderson's. So my middle initial is R, which doesn't really differentiate me from too many people. My title is provost and senior vice president for academic affairs.

I grew up in Bloomington, Indiana, which is where Indiana University is. And my parents were not affiliated with the university, but all of my friend's parents were. And so I got exposed to sort of the faculty lifestyle I suppose very early on. And when I was in high school, my chemistry teacher in high school was a very good chemistry teacher introduced me to some chemistry faculty at Indiana University and I had the opportunity the summer between my junior and senior year in high school to work in a chemistry laboratory. My friend's parents and that experience exposed me to the profession of being a faculty person and it just appealed to me. And so I worked in a chemistry laboratory my entire undergraduate career. I was a Teaching Assistant (TA) when I was a senior and I really had no aspirations other than to be a university faculty person.

When it came to just chemistry, was there something particularly in chemistry that you had a knack for or a thrive for?

No, I think I like science. I like math and I was good at it when I was growing up. Most people who go into chemistry have a very good high school chemistry teacher and, and that was my case as well. I think frankly, if you ask virtually any chemistry faculty person at any university in the country, that will be their experience. It's pretty rare, actually. High school chemistry teachers are few and far between. Oftentimes, they are either repurposed biology teachers or repurposed physics teachers. The day I walked in the door as a freshman as a freshman student at Indiana University, I was only targeting being a university professor.

Where did it take you after graduation?

I went to the university of Wisconsin, Madison campus to get my PhD in chemistry. When I got my PhD in chemistry, I then went to the university of Utah where I was a postdoc for a couple of years. I postdoc with a guy named Stan Pons and I was in his lab between 1987 and 1989. Stan Pons is a great guy. He was very good to me, and he did really interesting research, but at that time, he was embroiled in this, this thing called Cold Fusion. If you do a Google search on cold fusion and Stan Pons, you get a whole bunch of interesting information. But basically the claim of the ability was to induce fusion reactions at room temperature. It got a lot of publicity and, and it was on the cover of time magazine. I was interviewed by NPR and, and whole bunch of other stuff. There's, yeah, there's been books written about it and the whole thing.

I started as an assistant professor in Virginia Tech in 1989 and I loved it. I love teaching. I love doing research. I love working with students. It was everything I'd hoped it to be. But between the time I was a freshman in college, and when I started as a beginning faculty person, which was almost exactly 10 years actually, now that I think about it, a higher education had changed quite a bit. And the role of research, particularly at an R1 institution had, had changed. I sort of grew up in the time when research was simply about the discovery process. It was about learning. And it still is to a certain degree, but at state flagship universities and R1 institutions, state governments started to defund higher education, the importance of funding for research became more and more important. And research as a funding mechanism became a strategy for a lot of R1 institutions. And so, the nature of the role of research, particularly at R1 institutions change fairly dramatically in the time I went from grad student to postdoc to beginning assistant professor. And whereas I was attracted to the sort of the holistic faculty position, teacher-scholar, at a place like Virginia Tech, my success was going to be driven by my research success. I went on sabbatical leave and in 2000 I went to the University of North Carolina for sabbatical, which in my research area, it was one of the top places in the world. And I spent a lot of time reflecting on what was important to me. And what was important to me was that teacher-scholar model where, the teaching and the research were supporting other.

And I didn't see that I was able to be true to myself at Virginia Tech by going along the path I was going. And so I pretty much made a decision to focus on the education of my students and not the sort of the continuous pursuit of research funding. Interestingly enough, I would say arguably I had my most successful research career after making that decision. But, in the process of doing that, I effectively decided that in order for me to sort of be true to myself and true to my beliefs of what a faculty person should be, I was going to have a hard time doing that staying in kind of the R1 environment.

Always, pursuing the grants.

Always pursuing the grants, and I was teaching the classes, I was teaching at Virginia Tech were 200+ students. I was doing a lot of research with undergraduates, which I really enjoyed and that was great. But it's hard to teach 200 students and make sure that they all are kind of getting your individual attention, if that makes any sense.

Yeah, how can you have individual attention after that?

Yeah. I tried to and frankly, I would say I made a very purposeful decision. I knew every student's name. I was able to call them by name and stuff like that. If I saw him on campus, I was able to have a chat with them and I think they, I think the students appreciated that, but it was hard.

in 2007 our oldest child was a senior in high school and so she was graduating. So it was a good time to think about leaving. Because I was director of our graduate program. I looked at a department chair positions at universities and just so happened at the University of Colorado, Denver campus was looking for a chemistry department chair. And so I applied and got the position. University of Colorado Denver at the time was, this was in 2007 and in 2004, they had merged the Anschutz medical campus, which wasn't the Anschutz medical campus at that time. It was the downtown medical campus with the comprehensive university. And so overnight, the University of Colorado Denver went from being sort of a commuter school to a research one university. Anytime you have a medical school, you're a research one university. So they ended up hiring a lot of people like myself who were coming out of our one backgrounds into faculty positions and leadership roles as well. So it was just, it worked out well for me.

I was Dean for seven years at Kennesaw and I was made aware of various positions and had some succes as the Dean and it was suggested to me by some mentors and colleagues that I might be okay at the role of Provost. Because I had been at CU Denver, I like Colorado, we have a lot of friends and, and in the state, some family. And so when the position at UNC was advertised, at least on paper, it looked like a good fit to me. And it turns out it was a good fit, so I'm really pleased to be here.

What is a Provost?

Well, that’s a great question. I think it’s probably one of the roles at universities that a lot of people don’t know what it is. If you watch movies about universities, it’s always the Dean. It’s never the Provost, it’s very rarely the president. And so the Provost is a role which kind of is emerged over the course of history for universities. And as the president role became more and more externally focused, focused on alumni relations, donor relations, government relations, as the president’s role became more and more external, the need to have another person who kind of oversees the academic side emerged. And so Provost, if you look at sort of the history of higher education is a relatively new role for most universities. And by relatively new, I’m talking higher education in the country is almost as old as the country itself, but probably in the last 50 or 60 years is when the provost started to emerge as, as a more common position. And really it is the, the person who oversees the academic enterprise of the university.

Universities, whether we want to admit it or not, are big businesses. And our core business is education, providing those educational opportunities to students. But we have housing, we have dining, we have a bookstore, and all of that. And, as the business of the university has got more and more and more complex, it was increasingly hard for one person, the president to oversee everything. And so as you have a different vice presidents who oversee the different operations, the Provost is the one who oversees the academic operations. So the deans report up through me.

The deans have, leadership and oversight of specific academic programs which are organized around themes. So you have the college of education. And so the units within the college of education really are focused on teacher preparation kinds of things. You have a college of natural health sciences, where the units within that college are science focus, and the other colleges performing visual arts, business, humanities and social sciences. And so the deans, and I was Dean of the college of science and mathematics. The deans typically come out of the academic traditions of that unit. And the provost obviously comes through an academic tradition but can’t come from all of the academic traditions. And so we oversee the academic enterprise of the university. We have responsibility to ensure that the curriculum that the students are receiving is good.

What is your experience been so far since you’ve been at UNC?

It’s been a really great experience. People are super. We have great faculty here, very dedicated faculty and faculty who have the mindset that I was looking for when I was at Virginia Tech, that, that I didn't feel comfortable with, the teacher-scholar model. UNC is one of three research universities in the state of Colorado. So our faculty have a responsibility to conduct research, but we're different from the University of Colorado, we're different from Colorado State in that our research, we really need to bring back and align it with our teaching mission. So in the absence of that teaching mission, research for us to me doesn't make a lot of sense. Likewise, our teaching mission demands that we'd be involved with research.

One of the things that's really critically important in higher education today, whether we're talking about a bachelor's degree or a graduate degree, is that we have to prepare students through the curriculum, not for what was but for what will be. And so how do we know what will be? The way you know what will be is by being engaged in determining what the future of your discipline is by being engaged in research. And so to me, the teacher-scholar model that we embrace here at UNC for all of our students, undergraduate as well as graduate is critically important for the integrity of the education that, that students are getting here. Our research is different from what you're getting at the University of Colorado or Colorado State. So it's not less of a research focus, it's more of of how we are positioning our research mission within the context of the entirety of the university. When I was at Virginia tech for example, as an R1 Institution, our research was really focused on grants and graduates. Here, while we have very strong graduate programs, I think what you, what probably experienced, and if I'm wrong, tell me, is that the research experience engages undergraduates as well as graduate students. It's part of the education. Research isn't the only thing. It's part of our teaching mission.

Research is very dependent upon the individual. For example, let's just say a first year freshman, it doesn't have to be necessarily new and novel because it is new and novel to them. And so they're discovering something that they didn't know before. It's a little bit of a scaffolding experience and taking somebody who's just out of high school, and then somebody who's sort of a second or third year undergraduate, and then first year graduate student, and then somebody who's about ready to finish, you have to build that foundation before you can get to the place where you are at the forefront of your discipline. Whether it's provost or Dean or department chair or even faculty person, students feel a little bit of a disconnect between their experience and what they think the faculty or the university is. And I've not yet met a single faculty person here who is not really dedicated and connected to the students. And so one of the hard parts about being the Provost is I am personally very dedicated and connected to the student experience, but because I'm not teaching regularly, because I'm not conducting research anymore, I don't have those, those one on one interactions. And so it's a little disappointing because the reason I got into higher education to begin with was to work with students because I had a lot of people who were helping me who really are very important to me in my profession, but also in my personal life.

I really enjoy interacting with students. One of the reasons why I like this kind of thing [podcast] is because it gives me that connection and I think every faculty person at UNC has that desire to make those connections to students. And so the hard part about this job to me is, is sort of the, the space between myself and the students. One of the things that I really admire President Feinstein about is he's able to maintain those connections with students. Going to an athletic event or going to a music performance with President Feinstein is an amazing experience because every student who's there feels a connection to him. And so I'm really impressed by that and I'm in awe of it and I aspire to have that same type of connection to students.

Yeah, I heard that he had jumped out of an airplane with a student. So...

Yeah, I'm not going to go quite that far [laughs].

Bungee jumping, maybe? I don't know.

I'll play tennis with students but bungee jumping out of an airplane, yeah it's not my thing.

Moving forward, where do you see yourself and where do you see your connection with UNC?

Wow, that's a great question. It's kind of a deep and philosophical question. You know, I told you I had some interesting experiences. So I told you a little bit about cold fusion. I was at Virginia Tech during the shooting. And a lot of that day is just tattooed to my brain. But what it did for me personally and professionally is it really emphasized the importance of personal connection and the importance of community. And so I feel very strong about community and that's one thing I see here at UNC, that I really liked. And I saw that when I interviewed here and I knew really straight on that this was a place that had sensibilities very similar to my own.

In fact, when I came back from the interview and was talking to my wife, I told her that this was the job for me. When I was at Kennesaw state, some of the realities of higher education, it hit me straight between the eyes when we were merged with another university by our system. When I was at UC Denver was during the recession of the 2008, 2009 timeframe. So higher education in the timeframe I've been a student to now, has really evolved. And one of the things that I like about higher education is that every day is a new day. Every day is different. We're seeing that with the coronavirus. Of all the things that I've experienced in my career, this is the most unusual, and this is the hardest for me to wrap my head around because the social distancing has taken away a lot of the community. And so, like I said, from Virginia tech, I feel very strongly that community and connection is critically important to the success of the university, the success of the faculty, and success of the students. And so I have some, like I said, this is just the weirdest thing to me and I am confident because of the people here at this university, that we will figure out a way to maintain that community. But I think it's going to be difficult. We have to make a very intentional effort to make sure that we build those communities, we build those relationships because they're going to be different than they were before spring break.

What I really hope for myself and UNC is that continue to focus on community because that was the piece that I think is very special about the university that I think we have to really be diligent with in our current situation. And part of building community moving forward is making sure that students understand that they're an integral and important part of who we are and what we're doing and that their voice matters to the direction of the university. But also that we help to each other, faculty and staff, build a sense of professional growth. And so we have to help our faculty, particularly in this time, understand how they can continue to do their research, how they can continue to grow both professionally but also as a person. Another thing I really felt when I was just beginning my career at Virginia Tech, I knew that as I went along I was going to grow and change as a person. Not my core values but my interests. And at some institutions, I think it's hard to grow because they want you to be something and they've hired you to be something. And I always found that very stifling. And so one of the things I want our students and our faculty to believe about the university, because I believe it very strongly is that we want to grow with you. And we want to help you grow. However long that is, my goal is to help the university and help everybody at the institution understand that we want you to grow and we're here to help support that.

I just had a birthday the other day. I'm older than I used to be. I see this as sort of the culmination of what I've wanted to do when I was an 18 year old kid going to college, which is to be in an environment where we have community and the community helps each other be the best they can be. And I think in this role, what excites me is I think I have an opportunity to impact that. Because of the Corona virus, we obviously aren't having the commencement ceremony this spring. But one of the reasons why I like it is that it really reminds me of why we're doing this. The way commencement works is typically you're grouped by your college and your degree. And as people's names are being read and they're crossing the stage, receiving their diploma, I have the privilege of shaking the hands of many of our graduates as they're, as they're crossing the stage. It seems like everybody in a sequence, is getting the same bachelor's degree or the same master's degree. But they're not the same degree. In my mind, everybody has earned a degree in themselves because everybody's experience is different. And it's in the difference in those experiences which differentiate us and we have to celebrate those differences.


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