The University of New Orleans' new provost began his career designing and constructing water supply and waste disposal facilities for American Indian communities in Arizona. As a commissioned officer with the U.S. Public Health Service, John Nicklow's job was to figure out how to bring running water and sewerage systems to desert communities that had none. Although the work was potentially life-changing for the residents on the reservation, many were skeptical, if not hostile, to the idea of the government digging in and around their homes. In order to complete a project, engineers like Nicklow had to be adept at listening and finding common ground.
"What did I learn most from it? Collaboration, the way to communicate with somebody who either doesn't know you or may not agree with you," Nicklow said. "Everything we did we had to hold a tribal meeting. I got to be good at those kinds of situations—calming people down. 'How do you want us to do this? Where do you want this? How can we be more sensitive to your needs?' And collaborating instead of saying 'Hey, I'm the government and am here to help - we're going to put a water line through your front yard.'"
Two decades later, Nicklow plans to use the same communication skills and analytical approach as the chief academic officer at UNO.
"Engineers are trained to be problem solvers and to collaborate with a team to create an overall solution or design," Nicklow said. "That description fits very well with my responsibilities as provost."
On July 1, Nicklow assumed his new role at UNO as provost and vice president for academic affairs; he held a similar position at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill., where he spent 17 years. He previously served as assistant provost for enrollment management. During his tenure at SIU, he led initiatives for new academic programming, both on-campus and online, as well as efforts to improve cultural diversity, service learning in the community and undergraduate research.
"There are days when I miss doing engineering research and design, but the fact is I am using the same skills on a daily basis," he said. "The difference is that my work is all focused around increasing student success as measured through retention and graduation rates and improving the value added through the educational process—my real passions."
Those passions led to impressive results at Southern Illinois. Nicklow oversaw an initiative that resulted in the largest freshmen class in 20 years and improved first year-retention by a whopping eight percentage points. Together those gains yielded the first overall enrollment increase at the university in more than a decade.
Nicklow is a Pennsylvania native who earned a bachelor's and master's degree in civil engineering from Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Penn. As an undergraduate, he was an offensive lineman on the Bison football team.
"Team sports teach you all kinds of things," he said. "How to get along with people, how to swallow your ego and how to be humble, how to reward people around you. Nothing happens by yourself. I absolutely believe in the premise of team sports, and that's what (higher education) is."
Nicklow received his doctorate in civil engineering at Arizona State University. He worked as an environmental engineering officer for the U.S. Public Health Service in Arizona before joining the civil and environmental engineering faculty at Southern Illinois. Like UNO, SIU is a major public research university.
"I am extremely excited to become part of the University of New Orleans and the New Orleans community," Nicklow said. "The strength of the combined teaching and research mission, and the momentum, pride, and optimistic sense of a vibrant future are what drew me to UNO. Specifically, the faculty and staff are vested in the success of the campus, and they are actively engaged in activities that aim to improve our service to students and the community."
Nicklow's vision for the University's academic programs is that they are all high quality and in high demand. As provost, he said, he will provide support and serve as a catalyst for realizing that goal but he emphasized that he will also need help from collaborators across campus. Nicklow said he is pleased that a diverse faculty group participated in a recent academic revitalization and restructuring effort by evaluating all of the University's programs. He hopes to build on this momentum by growing niche programs that are in demand and evolving others to ensure that they are as competitive as possible.
"I also will encourage our programs to engage more fully in our student success initiatives and in understanding ever-changing best practices in the educational arena," he said. "We certainly don't operate in a vacuum; higher education is an increasingly competitive endeavor within a constantly changing market, and the way today's students learn is different than those 20 years, or even 10 years ago."
Nicklow said he hopes to create a Center for Innovation in Teaching, and a hub for expanded online, off-campus and summer offerings. These units will focus on faculty support and facilitating pedagogical innovation. In addition to his strong academic focus, Nicklow also made it clear that he is a supporter of student life programs and student involvement through Greek life, student organizations and intercollegiate athletics.
"These activities transform a campus into a strong, engaged community of learners, and the data is clear: Students who are engaged succeed at a much higher rate than their counterparts."