Four people have been named finalists in the University of New Orleans’ search for a new provost.
The person who fills the position will succeed interim provost Norm Whitley, who took over when John Nicklow was named the University’s new president.The new provost will report directly to the president and will serve as UNO’s chief academic officer, providing vision, leadership and oversight for all academic programs, enrollment management and information technology.
Each finalist was asked to participate in an open forum interview with faculty, staff and students.
Here, we bring you highlights from those Q&A sessions:
Robert U. Fischer Jr., dean and professor at College of Basic and Applied Sciences at Middle Tennessee State University, describes himself as a first-generation college graduate who has sought to give others similar educational opportunities.
Fischer holds an associate degree from Hermiker County Community College in Herkimer, NY; a bachelor’s degree in ecology from State University College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, NY; a master’s in physiological ecology from State University College at Buffalo in Buffalo, NY, and a doctorate in evolutionary biology from the University of South Carolina.
Before joining MTSU, he spent four years at the University of Alabama at Birmingham as biology chair and professor. He moved to UAB from Eastern Illinois University, where he served as associate chair and professor in the Department of Biological Sciences for five years. At EIU, he rose from assistant professor in 1994 to associate professor before being named associate chair in 2003, where he served until 2008.
On his career path:
Fischer said he has worked at “an eclectic group” of schools. He said he loved working at UAB, a place that he described as doing a good job balancing high-volume research and student-centered instruction. He was drawn to MTSU because it enrolls 50 percent first-generation students and 50 percent Pell Grant-eligible students. “It was a chance to go back to who I am, to go back to an institution that wants to be better,” he said. “Someone had given me a chance to succeed and it was time to figure out how to give someone else a chance to succeed.”
“I have a great job … But if you look, I’ve kind of worked my way through the ranks of every place I could possibly be at every institution and the next move is provost.”
On addressing enrollment declines:
Fischer said demographic shifts as well as changes in state higher education policy and funding have had an impact on enrollment at four-year institutions in Tennessee. He said he has worked to address enrollment challenges at MTSU through strategic planning, development and fundraising and innovative programming that marries industry need with degree offerings. He also believes in mining the available student data to analyze losses. He said he armed his faculty with their so-called “DFW rates”—the rates at which students earn Ds, Fs or withdrawals from courses—and some departments redesigned courses as a result. Fischer also said his college opted for a degree-specific first-year orientation program over a traditional freshmen orientation or first-year experience course like UNO has. It also bulked up tutoring for students and moved advisors into the departments, encouraging early and frequent contact so that students who are struggling get the help they need before it’s too late, he said.
“We’re not different than you,” Fischer said. “We have had to become nimble and flexible and figure out how do you ultimately take and try to figure out how you recruit in a diff way and figure out how do you retain the students you recruit.”
On departments starting their own programs and retaining income from those programs:
“It’s important to be sure there’s enrollment sitting out there,” he said. “I think the worst thing you can do right now is to add new programs that can’t find enrollment and can’t generate money. If you can show that then I think that’s worth the discussion and it’s worth thinking about, ‘Is the cost greater than the benefit or is the benefit greater than the cost?’”
On faculty recruitment and retention:
He said he believes in finding ways to keep key faculty—and their research—and guard against them being wooed by other institutions, even during tough budget times. “I think the worst thing you can do is lose good faculty because it costs you huge amounts of money to replace them,” Fischer said. “There need to be strategic ways to make sure you keep the faculty you need to keep the momentum going. If you don’t do that, you’re killing yourself. Because you’re starting over and over and over again.”
On MFA programs:
Fischer said that while he doesn’t have a lot of personal experience working with MFA programs, he believes they are a valuable part of an institution. He said an institution’s budget models should be built to accommodate a “broad liberal education.”
On the balance between research and instruction:
Fischer said that he wasn’t sure what UNO is. “I read that you’re an urban research institution, an R2, right? So, that’s what you are. But I don’t think you’re that anymore. So, that doesn’t mean you can’t be that. That doesn’t mean you don’t want to be that again.”
On online instruction:
“It needs to be done strategically and it needs to be done in areas where we can keep quality and areas where you need it.”
On faculty raises during times of economic strain:
Fischer said that he’s had to find ways to reward faculty and staff during years when state budgets do not include raises. He said he looks for opportunities to provide faculty with other incentives such as time or travel. He also thinks it’s worthwhile to look for ways to show appreciation through low-cost social gatherings and awards for such things as teaching, research and service.
Asked about the role in awarding grant money allocated for an institution’s indirect expenses in conducting research, Fischer said it should be rare for faculty to retain their indirects as matter of course: “If you think we’re going to give you compensation money straight out, that has to be a discussion that occurs and it has to be an agreement that’s brought forward and it has to be an agreement that everyone agrees to, including the president. Because we have very few people who do that.”